"Pup Fiction" is an episode from the American television series Wishbone, an educational children's program broadcast by PBS from 1995-1998. The episode, which first aired on May 25th, 1998, was written and adapted from Northanger Abbey by Liz Peters, and directed by Ken Harrison. The Wishbone section of both PBS.org and PBSKids.org has been removed following the show's cancellation, though this episode and others from the series can still be viewed on YouTube as of 2014.
As with nearly all Wishbone episodes, the episode includes a retelling of a classic text or story, combined with a modern rethinking of the key elements or themes.
"Pup Fiction" revisits Jane Austen's "gentle parody" of the gothic tradition, focusing on protagonist Catherine Morland's social ineptitude and her penchant for horror and the supernatural. Intertwined into her story is that of Wanda Gilmore, a woman who is receiving mysterious notes at her home and work, which become increasingly more menacing (or, at the very least, ambiguous and difficult to interpret).
In this adaptation, Wishbone the dog is present in both the modern storyline (as himself) and in the historical storyline (as Henry Tilney). Additionally, his function in both narrative strains differs - he works to help Wanda figure out who is sending her the perplexing letters and to placate her fears, but he antagonizes and goads Catherine's behavior in the parallel story, prompting her to think of all of the most terrifying elements about the abbey she is visiting.
Though the episode is only thirty minutes long, "Pup Fiction" manages to retain all of the prominent plot points from the novel, while simultaneously applying the lessons learned in the novel to the present day.
At the close of the episode, Wanda finally unravels the mystery of the notes. Letters which sounded threatening: "Soon, you'll know what we think of you," and, "You are the one," were simply dropping hints to Wanda in order to raise her curiosity enough so that she would arrive at the correct place at the correct time for her surprise birthday party. This reveal mirrors the moments in the novel where Catherine believes that she has found secret letters containing horrible information - only for them to be mundane laundry receipts.
Communication and Interpretation
The surprise party plot line is, at heart, about miscommunication. The various letters that Wanda receives throughout the episode become, in her mind, more threatening, and she requires answers as she begins to question the intent and her safety. However, each letter is simply cryptic, not menacing - they are purposefully vague and short so that they reveal no details about her upcoming birthday party. They only seem malicious because Wanda is misinterpreting the text - without context clues or the natural emphasis that is included in human speech, Wanda is unable to understand the true meaning of the letters. She continuously rereads the letters aloud, stressing each word in a different inflection, thereby demonstrating the power of emphasis and verbal communication.
One of the major issues in the novel is that Catherine, her friends, and her suitors, all fail to communicate properly, with characters misunderstanding speech (as with Captain Tilney's responses to queries concerning his dead wife) or with characters purposefully manipulating information for personal gain (the Thorpes lying to Catherine about Henry and his sister). The various snares in the novel could have easily been navigated if each character participated in open and honest conversation with those around them.
One key distinction between "Pup Fiction", Northanger Abbey, and other Northanger Abbey adaptations, is that this particular episode chooses to largely forgo the topic of love and marriage. While Wishbone has stepped into the role of Henry Tilney, the character who wins the heart of Catherine Morland in the text, it is not due to any uncomfortable implications of a dog and human relationship that the narrative steers clear of romance. Indeed, at one point, Henry Tilney mentions his father's worry that Henry is being duped by Catherine so that he will be "inclined to marry her". Catherine denies these allegations, and nothing more is said on the topic of marriage. Because Henry/Wishbone is seen as another human being, the reason for the removal of the love plot is something different entirely.
Wishbone the series is known for retaining themes and story lines true to the original, even if they are considered to be too heavy for children. Therefore, the relationship between Catherine and Henry stands as purely platonic in the episode not because their marriage isn't interesting or "appropriate" for children, but because their decision to marry isn't at the heart of the novel. What is more important is the role that they play as friends.
On their trip to the abbey at the beginning of the episode, Henry continuously brings up various aspects of gothic novels that Catherine will see when she arrives: sliding panels, and "things hiding behind the drapery." Here, he is playing with her tendency to draw parallels between her surroundings and the numerous gothic novels that she has read. He is gently playing with her, drawing attention to her overactive imagination in a way that is not too harsh for a discussion between friends.
Throughout the episode, Henry is there to remind Catherine that she is forming dangerous conclusions about Northanger Abbey, Henry's deceased mother, and Captain Tilney. He is an honest friend who is truly invested in correcting Catherine's behavior before it becomes too unruly and detrimental to her other relationships with the Allens, the Thorpes, and the Tilneys.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that PBS did not partner with the Nielsen rating system until 2009, there is no accurate viewer number available for this episode (Stelter).
Ratings, however, are overwhelmingly positive, averaging a score of 8.2/10 on IMDb.com, and a score of 9.5/10 on tv.com.
Wishbone has gained somewhat of a cult following since its cancellation, and most of its episodes are available through Youtube.
Though this particular episode did not win any awards, the show did win several Emmys for costume and set design, both which figure prominently in this episode. A brief clip is shown at the end of the episode which details the immense amount of research and work that went into making the costumes historically accurate.
Significance of Adaptation
"Pup Fiction" is a significant adaptation of Northanger Abbey because it makes the narrative more accessible for young viewers, and translates the themes into a modern setting. Rather than acting as an inflexible, textually "loyal" adaptation, like many Austen reincarnations, "Pup Fiction" was unafraid to remove the marriage subplot, and instead focused on the power of overactive imaginations and miscommunication.
Some may read Northanger and other Austen novels and find them to be too far removed from modern times, or not applicable to our current society. By interweaving both the story of Catherine and Wanda, the episode was able to demonstrate that these themes are still culturally relevant, and that they can affect any one from a teenage girl obsessed with novels, to a middle aged, mature woman.
Traditionally, Austen adaptations tend to stick as close to the narrative as possible, and therefore, they rarely add anything new to the canon. Through this Wishbone episode, audiences were able to see the staying power of Austen's works in a way that wasn't through strictly a niche "period piece".
Stelter, Brian. "PBS Finally Signs Up for Nielsen Ratings." The New York Times. 20 Dec. 2009. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.