(Part two in my four part Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are longform. A little late, hopefully not too short. Coming soon: Maurice Sendak as syncopated master-poet!)
Translation is an act of love; but as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, love is not enough.
This goes double for movies. Take the Lord of the Rings films, in which a series of flawed, but narratively masterful books are bear-hugged by a project so bloatedly faithful that the end effect is like having to sit through a piano recital by your best friend's daughter: sure, she's talented, and sure she's cute; but in the end all you want is for Gandalf to stop - talking - so -damned -slowly, and kiss a Hobbit. That he can't, and won't, of course, is one of the limitations of fidelity - for where most works of art are free to follow their own involutions, translations have their hands tied. As such its tricks are limited, so much so that the phrase "the book was better" is as unsurprising to us as saying that so-and-so author is more X (interesting, beautiful, musical) in his original language.
The exceptions to this platitude can tell us a lot about being faithful. When the books version of the fantastic Mr. Fox finds himself and his family trapped by the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, he decides to dig. His wife watches him spring to action:
"Slowly, Mrs. Fox got to her feet. She was suffering more than any of them from the lack of food and water. She was very weak. 'I am so sorry,' she said. 'But I don't think I am going to be much help.'
'You stay right where you are my darling,' said Mr. Fox. 'We can handle this by ourselves.'" (p. 28)
What are we seeing here? A happy family. More specifically, a happy family in a children's book. Mrs. Fox's suffering is like a heavy cold, and her polite attitude to her husband evidence that, even under duress, the family unit will function like a body, with the father as the brainy head, the mother as the beating heart, and the children as the, uh, frantically-digging paws.
Compare this to the same scene in Wes Anderson's movie version of Fox. After asking "to have a word" with him, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she's going to lose her temper. "When?" he asks. "Right now," she says, before slapping him across the face. With the sharp, but gorgeously pointed facets of a mineral deposit glittering behind her, Mrs. Fox asks her question:
"Mrs. Fox: Twelve fox years ago, you made a promise to me, while we were caged inside that fox trap, that if we survived you would never steal another chicken, turkey, goose, duck or squab, whatever they are, and I believed you. Why - why did you lie to me?
Fox: Because I'm a wild animal.
Mrs. Fox: You are also a husband, and a father.
Fox: I'm trying to tell you the truth about myself.
Mrs. Fox: I don't care about the truth about yourself. This story is too predictable.
Fox: Predictable? Really? What happens in the end?
Mrs. Fox: In the end? We all die. Unless you change."
So many things differ between these two scenes that it seems almost pointless to say what, other than the two characters involved, they share - but I think that Anderson is actually sticking closer to the spirit of his text than we think. In his version, Mrs. Fox is harsh and accusatory; Mr. Fox "honest" and self-deceiving. But they are still husband and wife. The scene is, like its original, a picture of a happy family; except that now, the word "happy" has been translated out of the language of childhood in which it originally appeared, and into the language of adulthood. Happy, as derived from the middle english "hap", which denotes a balance that is precarious but also durable, like a stick balanced on the end of your finger. The stick moves, you move; you move, the stick moves. The Fox couple fights without resolution; but they persist. Mrs. Fox's fidelity to her husband includes confrontation, because it is based on an idea of a relationship that goes beyond cordiality and into intimacy, where we give and take the capacity to hurt because it makes the person we give to or take from important, even unique. Because of this, the scene speaks to an adult in a way that the book's version can't.
Think of the many ways that this could have gone wrong. In an over-loving version, Dahl's emotional choreography is repeated step for step, and the movie is at best a good kids' movie, at worst an adults' movie that treats its audience as if they were emotional idiots. On the other hand, the version that replaces the spirit of Dahl's scene with a word of its own is unloving - meaning careless, butterfingered. A translation that thinks too much of itself and too little of its source, or decides that what it is doing is "better for everybody". Neither of them will be rewatched, at least by me. Stay with your man out of nostalgia, stay with your woman because you want to feel like a master of the universe. There are a thousand ways not to fall in love. But fidelity means (strangely enough) being willing to change.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds because of its mix of fidelity and daring. It is a fairy tale, like its original; but the world that it is trying to explain is the adult's universe of consequence, rather than the child's world of courage. In order to do this it has to find common ground: the "master language" of human experience behind both.