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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Pilgrim Keeps Progressing

My favorite musical as a little girl?
It's got the most beautiful score I've ever heard. Check it out -

Beautiful, right?
Now, growing up, I was fully aware that this musical was based on Charles Dickens's popular novel Oliver Twist. However, I had no idea that the novel had a subtitle: "The Parish Boy's Progress."
Oliver Twist is all about a poor boy's journey to find happiness and love in an unkind world. A journey to salvation, if you will. Coincidence? I think not.

For those of us more familiar with modern film, how about "Vanity Fair?" Reese Witherspoon gives an excellent performance in this heart wrenching film, the title of which comes straight out the The Pilgrim's Progress.

These are two of the most popular examples of Bunyan's lasting influence in western culture, but they are many more. Mark Twain mentions it briefly in Huck Finn, Nathaniel Hawthorne recreates the story in his own period with The Celestial Railroad, and C.S. Lewis wrote a book titles The Pilgrim's Regress, a story that mirrors his won religious journey. (For a more complete list of works influenced by Bunyan, check out this Wiki article under the subheadings "Cultural Influence" and "References in Literature").

Now, these references are all fascinating - they either mention the book directly, or allude to it through titles and plot design. This certainly speaks to the popularity of the book, and sets it apart as a fantastic best seller. Crazy as it may seem, it's actually been translated into over 200 languages: that's more than triple the number of languages Harry Potter has been translated into. But what is truly remarkable is the more subtle effect this single novel has had on our culture. It is quoted in video games, been adapted into films, musicals, and operas, all multiple times, and even in recent decades.

The big question that now comes to mind is, did Bunyan want this? Did he have any idea, any hope that his novel would reach such acclaim over the course of centuries? A great deal of his moral points in the novel are in direct conflict with the Catholic church, and yet all of Christendom, including Catholics, claim this novel as applicable to their own beliefs. Would Bunyan have stood for that? Bunyan's giant Pope is a condemnation of the Catholic faith, but modern Catholics have embraced the allegory; one Catholic media blog gave a highly favorable review of a new adaptation incorporating  elves and magic and highly recommended it for Catholic children and families. 

The strange fact of the matter is, regardless of sect, this book has become an ecumenical cultural phenomenon in the Christian world. As recently as 1990, artists have adapted this book into movies and modern books, starting the tradition all over again for the coming generations. While Bunyan undoubtedly would have welcomed the attention his little book has drawn from the masses, it seems somewhat ironic that his most favorable readers are the very individuals his allegory condemns. 


  1. You know, I felt no desire to adapt this book into something of my own making after reading it. While I appreciate everyone else's adaptations (Vanity Fair is ah-mazing!) I was so bored with this historical piece of literature that I was glad to be done with it. However, I think that knowing it will help me to critically look at other texts and so I'm glad to have read it.

  2. As a theatre minor, I ALWAYS want to adapt something into a musical, but aside from that, I wouldn't mind seeing PP on broadway someday. I think that hero tales, especially spiritual-minded ones, have a great place in our hearts. I've found religious undertones in nearly every journey/epic series that has been published in the last 5 years. Let's have another shot with a blockbuster version of PP!

    I also believe that Bunyan would be elated to know that PP has such a rich legacy. All writers and religious people want their work to last. I think he's pretty happy wherever he is, knowing that his very own creation lives on.

  3. I had no idea that there have been so many adaptations and allusions to Pilgrim's Progress! The only ones I knew were Vanity Fair and that Benjamin Franklin mentions it in something...his autobiography, maybe? I agree with Laura. I liked it well enough but I didn't love it. But, I'm very glad I've read it so now I can allude to it and actually know what I'm talking about.