Friday, May 21, 2004

The Korman Invasion

Anathema! Gordon Korman has rewritten one of his books to make it less dated, and therefore less fun. The War With Mr. Wizzle, from 1980, was one of the "Bruno and Boots" books that made Korman one of the most popular children's-book authors in Canada and a true child prodigy (his first Bruno and Boots book was written at age 13 for a school creative writing project). For those who aren't familiar with Korman, it's hard to explain just how popular he was with Canadian boys of my generation; we read all his books and read them over and over and laughed all the way through. Maybe because he wasn't much older than we were, he seemed to understand what kids really liked in a story: not innocence and righteous morality, but farcical action, comic scheming, and stuff that explodes/implodes/collapses. He more or less lost touch with his audience when he moved to New York and went to college, and he never quite got it back; he wound up as a respectable children's author making a respectable living, but never the same cult figure he had been. As his mother (the president of his fan club) once said to an interviewer: "Gordon didn't abandon you [your generation]. You abandoned him."

Anyway, to get back to Wizzle, the premise of the book (explained here) is that MacDonald Hall, Bruno and Boots' idyllic albeit riot-plagued Ontario boarding school, is taken over by a young man with new-fangled teaching ideas, who proceeds to make life miserable for everyone at the school. Some of Mr. Wizzle's bad ideas are throwbacks: dress codes, writing lines, and so on. But the thing that marks Wizzle as a true villain out to ruin MacDonald Hall is that he brings in -- oh, horror -- a computer. Yes, a large machine called the 515, complete with those reel-to-reel tape things and a huge supply of "computer paper," which has all the students and all Wizzle's plans entered into it. Naturally, no one likes this heartless computerization of the school, and Bruno and Boots successfully get rid of Wizzle and his hated computer.

Needless to say, this "computers must never be allowed in a school" message doesn't quite work now, so in reprinting the Bruno and Boots books, Korman has revised Wizzle. Now called The Wizzle War, the book now gives us a MacDonald Hall where computers are common, and Wizzle's heresy is introducing something called "WizzleWare," which makes the computer screens flicker.

I get why Korman feels he has to update the story, but it works better as a period piece. Fear of computerization was a common theme in the early '80s. I think we can all remember movies, books and TV shows about computers -- usually big, bulky computers that looked nothing like the personal computers then entering people's homes -- taking over the world or reducing us all to automatons and drones; in 1984 it was common to hear that the rise of computerization was in danger of making Orwell's dystopia a reality. Even the works of popular culture that portrayed computers positively tended to portray them as strange things with otherworldly powers; remember John Hughes' Weird Science, where a computer takes on a Frankenstein-like role and creates a living woman (with magical powers, no less). Looking back on this from our current vantage point, we can laugh at the naivety but also appreciate what we've lost; computers are everywhere now, and that's improved our lives in many respects, but it has led to a certain depersonalization and lack of privacy, just as those '80s movies, shows and books warned. Revising Wizzle to take out the computer-phobia also removes some of the charm of the MacDonald Hall books, because part of that charm was in the fact that MacDonald Hall was an old-fashioned place where boys talked and argued and had adventures -- a place without the internet and without video games, in other words. Or as the headmaster's secretary says of computers, in The War With Mr. Wizzle, "Just because a thing is new and different doesn't make it good!" I wonder what's coming now that we'll look upon as indispensable in 20 years?


Death Killer said...

Oh my God, Gordon Korman. I LOVED those books when I was growing up. Beware The Fish was my favourite but The War With Mr. Wizzle was good too. I always dreamed of being cool and rebellious just like Bruno and Boots, setting up an anti-Wizzle newspaper and all.

Anonymous said...

Oh man...Gordon Korman is THE greatest writer of comedy books ever. I actually got to meet him once, and it was practically the coolest thing ever. I also read the original "Wizzle," and it's hard to imagine it changed like that.