How to Read, “How to Train Your Dragon”.

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I’m going to outline here a series of steps – a program if you like – which will enhance your reading of How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell. It might seem a bit presumptuous and patronizing to do so, but I’m only looking out for your own good. Yes, I know that last bit sounds patronizing too, but I’m serious. There’s a way to read this book that will give you lots of pleasure, and a way to read it that will have you rolling your eyes.

Here, then, is the first step on the path to reading pleasure when it comes to How to Train Your Dragon…

 STEP 1: DO NOT SEE THE MOVIE!!!!

Or at least, do not see the movie before you read the book! The movie is so different as to be distracting when you read the book it was based upon. And “based upon” may be too strong a phrase. How about “cherry-picked from”? There is a boy called Hiccup. There is a boy called Fishlegs. There is a dragon called Toothless. There is a boy called Snotlout. Hiccup has a father called Stoick the Vast. They live on an island called Berk. They are Vikings.

I think that about sums up the similarities.

Now, I liked the movie. Maybe not as much as the first time I saw Shrek, or even Finding Nemo, but it was fun and had enough pathos to make me feel good at the end of it. And that was the problem. The world built in the movie was quite different from the book. The book was written with a younger audience in mind (as far as I can gather). It has toilet humour. The heroes are far less impressive than in the movie where even the hopeless are really pretty cool. The book, in that sense, is actually more realistic – hopeless people really are hopeless. Mean people really are mean.

But at the same time, the book is far more tongue-in-cheek. It asks you to believe in co-incidences that really are just a bit far-fetched, a bit cartoonish. Maybe that’s the wrong word, but the world Cressida Cowell fashioned is a fantasy that is in a different key to our world, where the laws of chance and physics are slightly to the left of ours. In fact, I think I’d be right in saying it is a very British fantasy, where silliness is fun, instead of an American fantasy, where silliness needs to maintain an underlying “cool factor” (see above).

So when I moved from the movie to the book, it was almost like moving from a teenager mindset to a kid mindset. The book was enjoyable, but I came away thinking the movie was better.

Too late, you say? You’ve seen the movie? Never fear, there are ways to be dragged back from the cynicism of the teenage mind to the enjoyable, laugh-out-loud appreciation of pure silliness that children have and I love. It happened to me – it can happen to you, too. You just need to take the next step in the How to Read Your How to Train Your Dragon programme…

STEP 2: Listen to the audio-book.

Go to iTunes, or wherever you get your audio merchandise, and download the audio-book of How to Train Your Dragon, narrated by David Tennant. (Resist the temptation to listen to pirated copies). Throw away your preconceived notions of Dr. Who’s accent and revel in Tennant’s natural Scottish lilt. He brings the book alive, totally divorcing the world of the How to Train Your Dragon book from the movie, and presents it in the way I can only assume it was meant to be read. My wife heard the audio book on a long car journey before she read the book, and as a result, the voices she hears in her head when she reads are Scottish, not the Scottish-for-Old-People and American-for-Young-People voices the movie burdens you with.

It is funny. It is witty. It is very clever for all its tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top character. It is quite simply far better than the movie.

What was that? you say. The movie is better than the book, and the audio-book is better than the movie?

Yes. That is what I’m saying. Amazing how presentation changes things.

Now, to keep one from spoiling the other, you need to take step three in our How to Read Your How to Train Your Dragon programme…

STEP 3: Keep both tellings separate.

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The book and the movie, I mean. In reality, they are two different stories. Think of them like that. Remember how many Superman narratives there are? The comic books, the early TV programmes, the movies, Smallville…

Okay, so maybe you don’t remember that, but the fact is that there can be two different stories involving the same main character, stories which would hopelessly contradict if they were ever put together as testimony in a court of law, but because they are not in front of the bench, they co-exist – parallel universes if you lean in that philosophical direction. Or a manifestation of the Multiverse, if you read DC Comics. I don’t, by the way, but I have read about the Multiverse… I’m getting off track…

Anyway, as long as you can keep in mind that the books are one telling, and the movies are the typical Hollywood infusion of American values into whatever story they tell (e.g. sarcasm is cool, cool is good, underdogs are unrecognized cool, bad people are misunderstood good people, blah-dee-blah-blah) you can enjoy them both. And then maybe you can start watching the TV series based on the first movie, which may or may not line up with the second. The potential multiplicity of it all must be worth millions!

And if you’re worried that Cressida Cowell is unhappy that her books have been hijacked by Hollywood, apparently she’s not.

 STEP 4: Read How to Train Your Dragon.

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Of course, you should actually read the book. You can read the book before or after listening to the audio book, and I guess if you read the book before the movie, step 3 won’t really be an issue. But I felt it important for all these steps to be put out there so that the reading pleasure of all can be protected.

And then, when you read the first book, read the next one. And the next. And so on. There are twelve in all in the How to Train Your Dragon series (though at the time of writing, the twelfth has not been finished, so who knows what might happen. There were only meant to be ten at one stage.) The more you read on, the more you will appreciate the coming together of the many disparate factors in each volume.

As with many book series, the first few books seem to be merely one episode followed by another. By the time you get to the last three or four, however, everything starts to come together in a way that shows just how large the story was always meant to be. The links and clever twists reaching right back to the first book draw the stories together in an overarching theme that becomes clearer as the stories go on. So not only do you get to appreciate the stories one by one, you come to appreciate the revealing of a picture that will leave you impressed by its creativity.

I say it again, read the book How to Train Your Dragon. (Always helpful if you are trying to enjoy it). And then read the series How to Train Your Dragon.

AFTER-STEP 4:

If you find yourself hankering for more along the lines of the book, check out the website (my daughter loves it). Read How to Train Your Viking by Toothless the Dragon (we haven’t done that yet). Perhaps look at reading Hiccup: The Viking who was Seasick (nor that). And The Day of the Dreader (that either). And no doubt, if you have kids, you will read the books all over again.

Heck, even if I didn’t have kids, I might just do that myself.

So there you have it.

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 If you want a pleasure-filled reading experience with the How to Train Your Dragon book:

1) don’t see the movie (before you read the book),

2) listen to the audio-book (before or after the book),

3) keep both tellings – movie and book – separate, and

4) read the whole How to Read Your Dragon series.

Fool-proof. Have at it!

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