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Robinson Crusoe, Home School Hero

Margaret Eustace France

A Robinson of Our Own

The introductions to Focus on the Family's editions of Defoe's novels contain nearly identical portions of text that present them so they may more comfortably reside within the parallel cultural universe I mention above. In particular, the "Movie History" sections of both introductions demonstrate the extent to which these editions of Robinson Crusoe and Farther Adventures are meant to replace previous iterations of the story. In his introduction to Robinson Crusoe, Wheeler writes, "strangely enough, I have not found any movie versions of Robinson Crusoe" (xiii). Wheeler's fruitless search is very strange indeed — film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe date back to 1903 (Mayer, "Robinson Crusoe" 169). At the time Wheeler published his edition of Robinson Crusoe in 1997, there were several films available in English, including Caleb Deschanel's Crusoe (1988), starring Aidan Quinn; Rod Hardy and George Miller's Robinson Crusoe (1997), starring Pierce Brosnan; and Luis Buñuel's The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) starring Dan O'Herlihy, not to mention the myriad less faithful adaptations like Jack Gold's Man Friday (1975), Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Wolfgang Peterson's Enemy Mine (1985).9 As Robert Mayer explains, most films barely touch upon Crusoe's spiritual transformation, emphasizing instead the sorrows of isolation, the triumph of man's will over nature, and, with increasing regularity in the second half of the twentieth century, the complicated dynamic between Friday and Crusoe ("Three" 36–45). In fact, Buñuel's version has been characterized as both an "atheistic" depiction of the story and, along with Gold's Man Friday, has been credited with confronting Crusoe as a sexual being, which Wheeler (and arguably Defoe) studiously avoids (Anderson; Mayer "Three" 41–43). After expressing surprise at his inability to find a film adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, Wheeler muses that "it would be a difficult book to capture in celluloid — especially, aspects such as the cannibalism and ever-present violence and bloodshed of the time. However, if done correctly, it would make a wonderful miniseries" (xiii-xiv). Surprisingly, despite all the ways film versions of Robinson Crusoe might come up short in Wheeler's eyes — too invested in their revision or critique of the master/slave dynamic between Crusoe and Friday, too limited in their portrayal of Crusoe's spiritual development — the amount of violence seems to be the deciding factor. Wheeler writes of the limits of film specifically as a medium for depicting violence, never mentioning or acknowledging the other possible complications of adapting Robinson Crusoe.

Still, that Wheeler would fail to recommend any films based on Robinson Crusoe is odd in light of his inclusion of mainstream film adaptations in the movie sections of other books in the Focus on the Family Great Stories series. To compare, the Focus on the Family edition of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women lists the three most popular film adaptations: George Cukor's 1933 film starring Katherine Hepburn; the 1949 adaptation, directed by Mervyn LeRoy featuring June Allyson, Margaret O'Brien, and Elizabeth Taylor; and Gillian Armstrong's version from 1994, starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (xii). Wheeler's inclusion of so many versions of Little Women suggests that the filmmakers' interpretive approach to the source material may not have sole bearing on his decision to recommend them in his introductions. Like the Robinson Crusoe films Mayer analyzes, Armstrong's Little Women fails to convey the religious aspects of the story — in fact Armstrong's Little Women was understood by mainstream and even some academic critics as an explicitly feminist rendering of the novel (Francis 1312–13).10 How can Wheeler recommend this film but not find a single acceptable adaptation of Robinson Crusoe? It would appear that while Little Women can be left to others to interpret, the Crusoe story must be strictly regulated and interpreted for the evangelical Christian audience: Focus on the Family's "complete" version of the story must consist of not just one but of the first two novels, and it must be so specific to evangelical Christians that mainstream films cannot successfully capture its meaning. By ignoring literally dozens of films based on Robinson Crusoe, Wheeler exerts control over the Crusoe story.

Furthermore, in the introductions to both novels, Wheeler claims that his editions are the first to insert paragraph and chapter breaks, update the language, and incorporate illustrations (Wheeler, Robinson Crusoe xii; Wheeler, Farther Adventures xiii).11 However, even full text editions of Robinson Crusoe often include illustrations, as detailed by David Blewett in The Illustration of Robinson Crusoe 1719–1920. Indeed, Robert W. Lovett's Robinson Crusoe: A Bibliographical Checklist of English Language Editions, 1719–1979 lists over thirty unabridged editions of Robinson Crusoe that would seem to satisfy all of Wheeler's requirements. Rather than assume any insincerity or ignorance on Wheeler's part, I want to suggest that because Wheeler sees himself as reclaiming these novels for an evangelical Christian audience, previous editions simply do not exist in the same cultural universe. Denying the existence of secular media versions of Robinson Crusoe allows Wheeler to put more distance between the evangelical Christian audience — including himself and his readers — and the public at large who cannot understand them. Wheeler must emphasize this estrangement to make the Crusoe novels acceptable vessels for Focus on the Family's stated values.

According to Wheeler, and by extension Focus on the Family, evangelical Christians are so separate from the mainstream that even a straightforward film version of Robinson Crusoe is as incomprehensible as the gestures of the natives in their canoe. The Focus on the Family editions firmly locate both novels within a separate canon. By including Farther Adventures in what Wheeler calls "the full saga of Crusoe," Focus on the Family more than doubles the violence of their version of the Robinson Crusoe myth (ii). While scenes of massacre, rape, lynching, and, in the case of the maid's story, auto-cannibalism, might explain Farther Adventures's unpopularity with mainstream American schools and families, with Wheeler's slight alterations it resides happily on the same media shelf with the Left Behind series, a DVD of The Passion of the Christ, and, as Wheeler notes, the Bible. The logic Wheeler uses to guide his subtle changes to Defoe's text recalls Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's approach to violence. The novels in the series include scenes of dismemberment, decapitation, and even petite women beaten to death at the hands of large men. When explaining the way a character uses an inflatable slide to exit a plane, LeHaye and Jenkins demurely describe the character landing "not on his seat, but on his shoulders" (42). Wheeler's decision to follow the Victorian copy text in replacing "backside" with "back" in Focus on the Family's rendition of the famous mooning scene in Farther Adventures echoes Lehaye and Jenkins' modesty. Both follow the principle that only bodies undergoing some kind of physical punishment may be exposed — after all, one of the values James Dobson sets out to challenge in Dare to Discipline is the idea that nudity is noble. Women's lingerie appears in Dare to Discipline only because it is used as a weapon. As sales of Left Behind attest, James Dobson's parenting manuals recommend, and Focus on the Family's activism defends, there is a place for violence within Focus on the Family's version of the Christian home. Just as there is a right time, according to Dobson, to use physical force to discipline a child, there are moments when violent acts are necessary in the wider world. Part of the shared Christian identity assumed by the editor of Focus on the Family's Robinson Crusoe and Farther Adventures is a willingness to observe and interpret violence. A more violent Crusoe is by extension more, not less, suitable for Christian homeschool use, because witnessing violence gives the reader more chances to assert his or her identity as a Christian. Wheeler's editorial interventions, both in his decisions to follow or deviate from the copy text and in his introductions and discussion questions, invite the readers of the Robinson Crusoe and Farther Adventures to admire, then judge the protagonist not for resorting to violence, but for picking the right moments and motives to do so. Wheeler asserts in his Note on the Text cited above that this ability to discriminate between the just use of force and simple goremongering is developed and maintained through Biblical study. Understanding Robinson Crusoe and Farther Adventures in the broader context of Focus on the Family's activism, the properly educated Christian need not limit these distinctions to literary study. Violence, according to the parents' rights movement and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson's Dare to Discipline, is not an unalloyed evil in the home. Instead, violence can be understood, managed, and even applied by a capable Christian.

Focus on the Family's editions of Robinson Crusoe and Farther Adventures are chary of depicting bodies, but not their dismemberment. Despite specifically designing these editions for the homeschooling audience, the prefatory materials and discussion questions for both novels emphasize violence over education. This emphasis may seem counterintuitive, but it actually explains why Focus on the Family includes Farther Adventures in their version of the Crusoe myth. Studying force and its proper application over the course of the two novels gives Focus on the Family a new version of Crusoe's journey where the hero, instead of becoming more autonomous through his individual study of the Bible, becomes more dependent on other Christians. The impulses that Crusoe can modulate through personal reflection in the first novel must be subjected to the approval of other Christians in the second. Focus on the Family makes this reading distinctly their own by omitting references to secular versions of the Crusoe story, including other editions and films. The celebration of autonomy in the first novel correlates with Focus on the Family's drive to give parents absolute control over their children's educations, while contrasting the portrayal of violence in the first book and the second resonates with an idea underlying Dare to Discipline: with the support of a Christian community, violence can be an acceptable way to assert authority. This version of Crusoe shares little with recent mainstream iterations like Lost, Survivor, and Castaway, but might carry more resonance for a constituency that defines itself by its ability to comprehend and occasionally employ force. Examining the way Focus on the Family distinguishes their Crusoe from the standard contemporary version of the story — adding the second book, reducing nudity, flagging gore without excluding it, and ignoring adaptations — uncovers the ideological utility of Robinson Crusoe as encountered outside of the academy.

Bilkent University

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