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bad covers charlie chocolate

I’ve been preoccupied with book covers this past week, in the run-up to Ghost Flight, my third ‘Moss Reid’ crime thriller. Waiting for a proof copy to come back from the printers and with fingers crossed that the cover works, though I’m sure it’s not a complete disaster.

Talking of which, the above cover – for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the new line of Penguin Modern Classics – really is a disaster. It caused quite a stir earlier this year.

It’s supposed to be aimed at an adult audience, but many adults find the image creepy, trashy and “overly sexualized”. God knows what kids think of it.

A Penguin spokesperson said:

This new image for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life.

No, Penguin. No. It’s wrong, it doesn’t work, it’s awful. It’s  “an epic fail”. And I’m a Roald Dahl fan, from his kids’ stuff to his darker stories.

Compare this cover with the Puffin Classics Deluxe Edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (illustrated by Ivan Brunetti and Joseph Schindelman), or other more familiar versions. I know which ones I prefer, and I’m not even a kid any more:

charlie charlie2

As columnist Colette Browne put it so well in the Irish Independent (under the headline “Charlie and the coquettish factory sensationalises classic”), the cover “feels like a desperate attempt to court controversy”:

Penguin, regrettably, has committed a cardinal marketing sin: it has forgotten who its target audience is.

“It probably thinks the cover is edgy, risqué and cool. I imagine that executives, when it was pitched, were thrilled to learn that Charlie, Willie Wonka and the chocolate factory had been airbrushed out.

“Everyone was presumably delighted at how postmodern and subversive it sounded. But, in reality, the cover is hackneyed, generic and, frankly, bizarre.

Even worse book covers

Other epic fails in book cover artwork might be attributed to certain – what might we call them? – cultural differences and slippages. Try googling “Korean cover for the Diary of Anne Frank” for example, and see the first results.

Or how about this Brazilian version of Stephen King’s The Shining?

brazilian shining

Margot Kinberg’s must-read blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist had a fascinating discussion yesterday about “how culture influences things like book titles and book covers”.

Yet it’s hard to beat the English-language “Great Classic Series” in getting almost everything on its covers so terribly wrong. It is jaw-dropping.

The ‘Great Classic Series’

Time and again, the images in this particular series make you wonder, “Did anyone in the marketing department actually read the flaming thing?” Did anyone in the entire building read it?

GCS - balzac

GCS - hardy

GCS - Henry James

GCS - moll flanders

GCS - shelley

GCS - treasure island

Are the cover artists being deliberately perverse? Is this a postmodern parody of art college students on acid?

Forget the bikes on the beach in Treasure Island (this for an era before the bicycle had been invented). The obsession with spaceships and distant planets to portray classics such as a Sherlock Holmes tale, or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (a collection of small-town comic sketches from the mid 19th century) is plain daft…

GCS - cranford

GCS - sherlock


GCS - call of the wild

GCS - dorothy

Mad settings

Or how about icy landscapes for the heart of the Nile, or deserts for villages in middle England – again around the same Victorian times? Besides everything else, they are deliberately misleading the public as consumers and would-be readers. Yet I don’t see any of our numerous consumer protection agencies stepping in to stop this practice.

GCS - africa

GCS - hecht

GCS - notting-hill

If, as a fellow reader or potential book-buyer, you too are bewildered, I think I’ve left the best – or very worst – till last.

It’s the one with the monkey wrenches and bolt for Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. OK, at least in that one they didn’t use a prison officer in a sci-fi jail on the distant planet Syrilonus IV, but even so…

GCS - turn of the screw