Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fantstic and Wild, Part 1: Escaping Safely

(this is part one of a four-part discussion of adaptation, movies, kids books, and Generation X, among other things. It uses the recent movies The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things Are as a starting point. Part 1 is on the various book versions of TFMF. Part 2, which looks at the opera- and stage versions, as well as Wes Anderson movie and cinema in general, should go up by Wednesday. Part 3, on Maurice Sendak, should be ready by Friday, and then (fingers crossed), I'll round it out with part IV this weekend. Please feel free to post responses along the way, and enjoy!)

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a story about doing: a hymn to action whose main character succeeds, like Tom Sawyer, no matter what obstacles are put in front of him. In part, this is what makes his book so wonderful to kids - for as the French philosopher Alain writes, "Courage is the king of fairy tales and the god of childhood". Children, who are terrified all the time, and who therefore have a very good idea of what "being brave" means, want bravery to be a skeleton key that opens any lock; so, as soon as Mr. Fox is menaced, he sits and thinks. Then he has an idea. Then the idea is translated from his head out into the world of action. The transition between each of these stages is smooth, even flawless, leading us to assume that the two languages - thought, and action - are less separate languages than dialects, or even accents, like British and American English, whose occasional differences of pronunciation are cause more for gentle awkwardness (or at worst a misunderstood street name) than any real disaster.

Donald Chaffin's illustrations in the original Alfred P. Knopf publication (1970) of TFMF only emphasize the essential harmlessness of Mr. Fox and the world he lives in. With his soft, inexpressive eyes, frozen smile and teapot-shaped head, this version of our hero is less like a drawing of an actual beast and more like an icon: a sticker peeled off its sheet and placed against a series of autumnal landscapes. His double-breasted waistcoat is always impeccably clean, even after an afternoon of hard digging - but then this is exactly the point, since dirt in this fox's world is not a dense element that must be dealt with in order to succeed, but a sort of second atmosphere, as civilized and malleable as butter.

Such heightened domesticity is of course a staple of children's literature, which works to transform the hard world that children experience into a sort of gigantic rumpus room. In Dahl's book this impulse is most obvious in the plot itself, which summons Boggis, Bunce and Bean like a trio of evil clowns and then knocks them over without once making us feel that they might actually manage to harm our hero or his family. Throughout this, Chaffin's cozily undramatic pictures (the foxes appear to be smiling even as they "frantically" try to escape from an approaching bulldozer) form a perfect accompaniment: a sort of light jazz for the hospital waiting room of the story.

It is interesting to note, however, that on his way to this placidity Chaffin glosses over those moments of nose-picking grotesquerie that are the calling card of Dahl's prose. The book's descriptions linger over the three farmers like a schoolboy picking through entrails: Bean's smile is "sickly", showing "more gums than teeth"; he pulls "something black and hard out of his ear" and tosses it in the grass. Bunce eats donuts filled with goose liver paste. The trio are physically disgusting - and then, though this atmosphere is missing entirely from the pictures, it creates an interesting tension in the book as a whole: as if what we were reading was not one, but two stories, which agree in places and disagree in others, like a pair of old men squabbling over a single story.

Such stereoptic storytelling may seem strange in what is supposed to be a straightforward story - but as master illustrator and children's book writer Maurice Sendak says, it is actually normal - exemplary even. For Sendak, the "picture book" (as he calls it) is by its very nature a hybrid, in which text and image dance around one another with a freedom that is, perhaps, the most childlike part of it. The task of the author/illustrator is therefore not to downplay this interaction, but to encourage it. As Sendak says in an interview with Walter Lorraine:

"You must not ever be doing the same thing, must not ever be illustrating exactly what is written...You have worked out a text so that it stops and goes and stops and goes, and the pictures become so subtle, too, that quite independent of the words they tell their own side of the story. The illustrator is doing a tremendous job of expansion, collaboration, of illumination." (Sendak, Caldecott & Co., p. 186)

Given this potential for interplay, one of the most interesting things about rereading (or watching, or listening to) TFMF in its various interpretations is the chance that it gives us to see how illustrators over the years have changed the work, emphasizing or downplaying certain elements depending on their own visions and temperaments. In Quentin Blake's translation, for example, Dahl's fox sprouts pan legs and stiff, wing-like coat-tails, not to mention a coat of fur that looks like it was scratched onto him by a particularly dreamy fifth-grader. The paint-box water-coloring gleefully overrun its outlines, giving each picture a happy, anarchic feeling, like a doodle whose energy and wildness have been rendered harmless by the controlling figuration of the characters. In turn, the Mr. Fox we read about in this book is wilder, freer: less the super-effective aristocrat of fate and more the cockney jobber. His success is the fool's success and therefore lovable, though perhaps less parentally endorsable.

Comparing these two characters raises the inevitable question: who is the real Mr. Fox? Is it Chaffin's wall-hanging, or Blake's sculpted snot-chunk? Sophisticates may scoff - but anyone with children will understand the importance of this point, which unfortunately only gets more complicated the more we look into it. Puffin will publish two more versions: a Chaffinesque saga with a beautiful, moonlit cover by Jill Bennett, and the more Blakean "young reader" version by Tony Ross, in which Mr. Fox looks like a cross between Elmo and Bart Simpson. The drawings are excellent; but in each of these cases, the illustrators, like their predecessors, conceive of their protagonist through one of two personas: the mischievous trickster, or the Victorian gentleman. Confusingly enough, the text supports and contradicts both - which is important, since it in turn illustrates for us the way that Dahl's writing is itself already syncopated (to use one of Sendak's terms): not a pure stream at all, but a muddy river of twigs and branches and seeds, which flows, sure, but also eddies, to the delight of its readers and profit of its interpreters.

Counter-intuitive though it might seem, this narrative syncopation is one of the real reason why kids like Dahl so much - for no matter what strain its illustrators choose to pick up on, TFMF retains two basic tools: the reassuring and protectively regular plot (Dad), and a giggling, distractible, body-obsessed description (Dad's boozing, lazy, no-good brother Tom). The reader gets to have her cake and eat it too, laughing at the descriptions of the triumphant Mr. Fox launching belch after celebratory belch without having to worry that his joy de vivre might cause him to do something excessively vigorous, and so overflow the conventional outline of his cage/house.

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