Philip Pullman on adapting Aladdin

Philip Pullman, one of our leading children's authors, explains how he gave a new sprinkling of magic to the Christmas classic Aladdin

I wish I had written Aladdin. But I had a greater privilege than that: I re-wrote it. In a sense, we write nothing original and everything we compose is a re-ordering of events, scenes and ideas that other storytellers put together long before we were born. If someone composed an entirely new story, perhaps we wouldn't recognise it as a story at all. It would be like Wittgenstein's lion: if it could speak, we wouldn't understand what it said.

In fact, like millions of people before me, I absorbed Aladdin so early in my life that I can't remember not knowing it. I can't remember not knowing Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk either, or the great nursery rhymes like Hey Diddle Diddle or Sing a Song of Sixpence. Every child should have the chance to absorb these experiences of language and narrative at play; our first encounter with the great wonder tales should ideally take place when we're so young that there's nothing but pure enjoyment in the encounter. My first Aladdin may have been a pantomime, or a Ladybird book, or a story in a child's edition of The Arabian Nights - I simply can't remember, and it doesn't matter. What mattered then was the sequence of wondrous events and the emotional colours they were suffused in: comedy, delight, suspense, fear, and not least that very suspect thing, the exotic, the oriental.

There's a great deal to be said about that last quality, but it's worth pointing out that the original text indulges in a form of Orientalism, in placing the events in China, far to the east of the Arabic-speaking lands where the tales of Thousand and One Nights were first written down. It isn't a real China, any more than the myriad Easts that have stimulated the imaginations of European writers are real. When Milton described Satan's throne in Paradise Lost as being '... of royal state, which far/ Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,/ Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand/ Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold', he was drawing on a stock of ancient assumptions about the otherness of the Orient, but the poetry is worth it.

Jean Genet, in The Thief's Journal, claims the right to appropriate any part of the world in the service of the imagination: 'I intend to report, describe and comment upon the festivals of an inner prison that I discover within me after going through the region of myself which I have called Spain.' The tales of Thousand and One Nights allow us to travel in that region of ourselves called the East, just as Shakespeare conveys us to a shipwreck on the coast of that region of ourselves called Bohemia, and, for the matter of that, just as the novels of PG Wodehouse invite us into that region of ourselves called Blandings Castle.

So I had no hesitation in following the excellent translation of NJ Dawood and going to China with Aladdin. My aim was to tell the story swiftly and lightly in the clearest language I could command. Swiftly, because one of the things I enjoyed in the original was the way the narrative disposed of one character before turning to another:

'The Moor abandoned his quest and journeyed back to Africa with a heavy heart. So much for him.

'As for Aladdin ...'

I admired that brisk, matter-of-factness very much. I also liked the fact that the characters are blissfully unburdened by self-consciousness. Like the characters of the great fairy tales, they act spontaneously and purely; they are direct and all of a piece. So Aladdin is a scapegrace, an idler, but he's frank and courageous, and the Moor who pretends to be his uncle is a deceiver all through. This is not a novel - it is a tale of wonder. The psychology is in the events, not in the characters.

I wrote my version in the form of a short book that was going to be illustrated, and now it's become a play. Aladdin has been a favourite theatre piece for two hundred years or so. I have a copy of the 'Pollock's Toy Theatre' version of Aladdin that was itself based on the version played at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1826, when it was no doubt correctly described as a Grand Romantic Spectacle. In this, the villain, named only as a Moor in the Penguin Classics version, is given the name of Abanazar, and the seeds of the modern pantomime can be seen in the rapidly changing scenes and extravagant costumes: but then how else would you depict a tale of wonder? Aladdin was one of the great favourites for the toy theatre, along with Jack the Giant Killer and Blackbeard the Pirate as well as thrillers like The Miller and his Men and, the oriental again, Timour the Tartar. Scripts and cut-out characters and scenery, a penny plain or tuppence coloured, were sold in their hundreds of thousands.

But only a few of these stories have survived as modern pantomimes. Pantomime is a great and valuable part of the theatrical tradition in this country, and although I love it in theory, I don't often enjoy it in practice. I delight in music and I love spectacle, the more gaudy and splendid the better; and there is every reason why we should see a great comedian deck himself with gigantic false breasts and a vast wig and pretend to be Aladdin's mother. The capaciousness, the wonderfully welcoming heterogeneity of pantomime should be its greatest strength. At its best, it can be glorious.

But when it doesn't work, it's because there isn't enough talent on show, and too much of it is television talent, which has a much shorter focal length than theatrical talent and doesn't always reach the back of the auditorium. Then there's the 'only for kids' factor. I've seen pantomimes where the basic premise seemed to be that anything more than the perfunctory and slapdash would be wasted on a young audience.

What's more, I detest the assumption, common among people of no talent, that the way to engage children is to talk about things that come out of bodily orifices. Children can talk about those things among themselves; they need to know that such conversations ought to stay in that circle. What they need from adults is wit and they don't get it often enough. So when the Bristol Old Vic wanted to make a play out of my version of Aladdin, I hoped that it would be done in that spirit. The result is very firmly a play, not a pantomime, because the Aladdin story is so strong and interesting that it deserves, occasionally, a treatment that isn't interrupted by songs and garlanded with Twankeys and Wishee Washees.

Like many fairy tales, it's a story of transformation, and the transformation here is of the character of Aladdin himself. He grows from a wastrel into a hero, and to understand the drama of the process, we have to see him in both forms - the immature ne'er-do-well hanging around the market with his idle companions annoying the passers-by, and the brave and handsome lover of the beautiful princess.

His passage towards maturity takes him underground. The Moor, who has learned that only Aladdin can fetch the enchanted lamp from the cave, sends him down into the dark with a magic ring to protect him from danger, only to abandon him when Aladdin refuses to hand up the lamp before coming out himself. Aladdin spends three days suffering under the ground before he discovers the power of the ring: if he rubs it, a genie appears and helps him to escape.

There's another story about someone who was buried for three days and then came back to life, but it was the provenance of the ring that bothered me. Why should the Moor give Aladdin the means of getting out? Better for him to discover the ring for himself, I thought, and in my version, he does. I was encouraged to take this liberty by the example of Italo Calvino in his Italian Folktales: quoting a Tuscan proverb, he says: 'The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.'

But I hope that those who come and see the play will feel that we've been true to the spirit of this most wonderful story, and that among the audience there is at least one child who will, in many years' time, tell it again in yet another way.

· Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp; from 2 Dec until 28 Jan at the Bristol Old Vic. Booking: 0117 987 7887


Philip Pullman

The GuardianTramp

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