Tearing down Charlotte's Web

April 11, 2018



In a recent edition of DDMN on YouTube, I had a little fun tearing down the 2006 film version of Charlotte's Web in favor of watching the '73 version with my daughter Abby. We ran a double-feature of both films one Sunday afternoon, after I mentioned to my family that the company I work for had done the visual effects for Templeton the Rat in '06, and that I might even have a credit in the film.  (Sadly, after checking, I don't.) 


So, after enjoying 94 minutes of the beloved Hanna-Barbera  classic from my own childhood, my 3 year-old and I tackled the 2006 live-action CG reboot, myself more than a little curious about how it stood up, and how my daughter might react to it. You can see that verdict here, but suffice to say that, despite sitting through two films from the same source material in one day, we remained relatively entertained to the end. Each film had its strengths and weaknesses, for sure. While I'd expressed a clear preference for the version I'd grown up with in my video review, to be fair, my daughter seemed happy enough with them both.


But a couple of things did irk me about the later,  CG-enhanced film which I felt, at first, to be proof of the earlier "cartoon" version's superiority. I'd felt the modern reboot had wandered too far off on its own, chasing plot threads for mere convenience, or for cheap laughs, in order to perk up an audience which was no longer just school-aged children, but EVERYONE in the family. I usually hate when movies try to be everything to everyone (something I blathered on about in my review) but I didn't really know for sure just how much contrivance the 2006 film had indulged in. How far from the original E.B. White novel had they actually strayed?


And worse, I had assumed my own premise, based on nothing more than the warm, nostalgic glow of my own memories, that the 1973 version was somehow a faithful and lovingly rendered artifact of the classic children's book. It began to bother me that perhaps I'd been throwing stones in my movie review from a comfy seat inside a glass house.


So, I did what no other busy dad (who I know of) with a maniacal munchkin running around at home would ever think to do with his self-time.


I sat down and read Charlotte's Web.


It was the first time in over 40 years, I imagine. Or, perhaps ever. I honestly can't say. I know we had the paperback growing up. I remembered some of its illustrations. But as a child I'd always assumed all movies from books were translated to the screen exactly as written. I didn't know about creative license, or the need to change things up in a movie because novels and films are just so different. I won't dive into all that here, but suffice to say the childhood me may have not even read the book at all, and then pretended to, after having seen the movie.


Jump cut to today. I was surprised, to say the least, to discover that both versions of this beloved tale of friendship and loss  deviated from the book significantly and, subsequently, some of the mickey was taken out of my YouTube review, which had come out strongly in favor of the earlier adaptation.


But only some of the mickey.


I discovered both films added characters to enhance their storytelling goals. The novel is not exceedingly long, only 184 undersized pages with lots of white and a bunch of drawings. Using the infamous minute-per-page Hollywood screenwriter's guideline, the 1973 screenplay might have been around 95 pages. If anything, one might guess that a good deal of material had to be taken out in order to keep its 94-minute running time under control.


But instead, they added characters. One, in particular.


They added Jeffrey.




Jeffrey is a gosling who hatches from an egg jealously guarded by the memorable mother goose in the story (who, herself, translates from the page to the silver screen very faithfully.)  But Jeffrey is an add-on. He is depicted as a runt, like Wilbur, but instead of just being too small, he's distinctly un-goose-like. He doesn't want to go swimming with his siblings. He doesn't want to peck at the ground. Instead, he loves Wilbur from the start, and wishes he'd been born a pig. So, Jeffrey decides to act like one. He grunts and oinks at intruders. He eats slop from Wilbur's trough. But it doesn't end there. Jeffrey wants to love who he loves, and to explore his own identity without preconceptions, character traits which might seem bold to some even today. Certainly, they are quite relevant to our times. But what was going on here in 1973?


Charlotte's Web is about many things, not the least of which is death. It contains a strong carpe diem message for its readers. The barnyard animals all seem at relative peace with the idea of the passing of the seasons, and the turning over of the generations. (All except for Wilbur, of course.)  The matronly goose prods Wilbur (in the book) to break out of the barnyard to go enjoy himself in the fields while he can. When the Sheep informs Wilbur that the farmer is fattening him up to kill him in the Fall, the goose confirms "It's a dirty-irty trick. But it's true."  The story truly thrives in that space between the momentary (our own mortality) and the eternal (love). The changing seasons. That coming winter we'll never see. And it pays close attention to the fickleness of nature; seven hatched goslings and one dud. Lunch for Templeton.


Then there's Charlotte herself. Wilbur wrestles with his early attraction to her. She grosses him out, at first. She catches flies and drinks their blood. "I love blood," she tells him, to his disgust. But it's not her decision, not her fault. Wilbur comes to love Charlotte despite her nature.


Templeton's case is similar:


" The rat had no morals, no con­science, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it-the goose knew that. Everybody knew it. "


And yet, by the end, Templeton is crucial to the plot and, if not quite loved, he's valued. He's part of the balance of things, and he's also distinguished himself as an individual, something beyond his own nature. He's trusted, in the end, to take a turn guarding Charlotte's eggs.


Wilbur's own journey is all too human at times, and adding a friend handily serves to underscore it. But who? After all, a mother goose doling out barnyard lore is one thing, and the spectral Charlotte, though a dear friend in the end, is intellectually above Wilbur, another motherly figure.


So they give us Jeffrey. He's a kind of kid brother, despite the passing away of Wilbur's own anonymous piglet kin (and Jeffrey's own "dud" twin) and serves to illustrate that we are all at the mercy of Nature, but also free to be ourselves, to become "known" to one another as individuals, and appreciated for our specific quirks; not for our biology, but for what's "in our hearts". In effect, we are allowed to transcend our programmed destiny, should we dare to, and become "special" to someone.


Put simply, we can be loved.


The '73 filmmakers seemed to enjoy these themes in Wilbur's story so much that they reinforce them here with Jeffrey. Bringing out the personality of one of the book's Spring goslings is an economical choice, too, because it allows the writers to engage with him from two pre-existing angles. First, by way of his mother, with whom we already have a major connection, and through Wilbur himself. While Charlotte's character has other things to accomplish, a gosling named Jeffery makes great sense, thematically and structurally, and distinguishing him with the act of friendship plays right into Wilbur's journey. Jeffrey is a very well-considered addition, and reinforces exactly the message the film is trying to convey.


And then we come to the 2006 version.


There is no Jeffrey. I bemoaned as much in my review, but let's be fair. There's no Jeffery in the book, either. This newer version, instead, adds a subplot involving two crows, Elwyn and Brooks, who engage in slapstick shenanigans involving a scarecrow, and at times provide a convenient foil for Templeton in order to heighten the stakes of his forays to the dump, and to the county fair. Much was made of their initials, taken together, as a tribute to EB White, the author of the novel. Whatever more one can make of that is a mystery, but many reviewers tried. Some said it was a nod toward the film's intentions, or its reverence to the source material, but that's a check this film can't cash.


On a purely metered scale, you can say both films add their own side characters, so they can be faulted equally for tampering with the author's original work. On that scale, you'd be right.


But, that's not the scale we should use. We're dealing with the author's intention, and the highest aim of a writer is not a story's structure. And it's not their character count. The story they wish to tell, if it's to resonate, comes through strongest by way of its themes.


Elwyn and Brooks are comedy relief, at best. They are devoid of any visible intention beyond that, and certainly don't work in support of any of the film's messages. They are a contrivance, created for the sake of streamlining and accelerating the plot, and that is all.


I started this post affirming the need to do just that, should one set about adapting the dense language or ideas in a novel, even a children's book, into a screenplay. And on a technical level, that was accomplished here. The plot works. It chugs along. As I said in my video review, my daughter was at least equally taken by both versions of the film. But, for this, and other reasons (like the reliance on, and pace of, the frenetic action scenes) her mental wheels simply didn't spin as much while watching this version. A dad can tell.


And that's also fine, to an extent.


But I stand by my thought that the classic 1973 version of Charlotte's Web is the better of the two films and, for emotional development especially, the more important. Someone would have to contact EB White in the Great Beyond to assert much more about the literary appropriateness of each film's additions. But, in a time when human reflection in movies is routinely diluted to its thinnest grade in order to run in all psychological engines (to make movies "for everyone") whenever a film emerges from the pack to deliver its humble message to its audience, enhance some particular moment in their lives, and magnify their appreciation for life itself...and pulls all this off fairly well?


I'll take that film every time.


And that's the film we should seek from such a beloved childhood classic.















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