Archive for Adaptation

Barnaby on stage, version 2.

Mr. O'MalleyAfter a failed stage adaptation and one failed radio version, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby headed for the stage a second time.  Adapted for children’s theatre by Robert and Lilian Masters, this Barnaby made its debut in Terre Haute, Indiana, in May 1948.  Looking ahead to the publication (in February 2013, I am told) of The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 1: 1942-1943, here is the story of that play, featuring a few images from the script (published by Samuel French, 1950) and a program from a production at the Wall Central School in the 1950s.

Also directed by Robert and Lillian Masters, this Barnaby’s main narrative focused on Barnaby’s father running for mayor against the corrupt Boss Snagg.  Subplots included O’Malley appointing himself Mr. Baxter’s campaign manager, a birthday party for Barnaby, and Snagg’s attempt to kidnap Barnaby to blackmail his father into ending his campaign.  It borrows some dialogue from Johnson’s comic, and focuses on characters rather than special effects or scenery — a wise move, given that the earlier stage adaptation got bogged down with special effects that didn’t work.  All action takes place in the Baxters’ living room, and Mr. O’Malley’s flying is described but not shown.  Though primarily a comedy, the show at times veers towards melodrama: Snagg is not just a crooked politician; he’s a criminal who at one point threatens the Baxters with a gun.  Usually, though, it maintains a light tone. A review in the Terre Haute Tribune predicted this two-act adaptation “bids fair to be a favorite with Children’s Theatre producers all over the country.”

Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby: program from Wall Central School, New Jersey, c. 1950sCourtesy of Mark Newgarden, here’s a program from the Wall Central P.T.A.’s production, presumably presented at the Wall Central Elementary School, in New Jersey.  (The program offers no info. about the state in which the school is located, but there is a Wall Central School in NJ, and mark bought the program in NJ.)  The cover image seems to be a sort of “stock” image.  Presumably, a guy reading from an unabridged dictionary conveyed “drama” to the person assembling the program.  Or maybe this was all they had on hand.

Below, the inside of the program, where we can see the cast of this show.  Anyone from New Jersey recognize any names?  Any sense of a year?  Mark Newgarden thinks that it’s from the 1950s, and that sounds about right to me.

Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby: program from Wall Central School, New Jersey, c. 1950s

Perhaps wary of working on another adaptation of his comic (he felt he was insufficiently consulted on the earlier stage version), Johnson left this one entirely to Robert and Lillian Masters.  He sold them the rights for $1.00, plus the promise of fifty per cent of any profit they might make from sales or performances of the play.  All too aware of the complications of trying to shape a stage Barnaby, Johnson otherwise remained uninvolved.

Thanks to Daniel Clowes, here are some… unusual drawings of the Barnaby characters, included in Robert and Lillian Masters’ script.  And no, these are not by Crockett Johnson.  The script does not identify the artist.

sketches of Crockett Johnson's McSnoyd (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

sketches of Crockett Johnson's Mr. O'Malley (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

sketches of Crockett Johnson's Gorgon (by an unknown artist), in Robert and Lillian Masters' Barnaby (Samuel French, 1950)

The stark difference between this artist’s style and Johnson’s highlights the clean beauty of Johnson’s.  Or, at least, when I look at these, I am struck by how “un-Johnson” they are.

Incidentally, I have in the past week seen some of Dan Clowes’ layout and design for The Complete Barnaby Volume 1.   I can’t share it with you on the blog (yet!), but trust me: this is going to be a beautiful book.

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Harold and the Purple TARDIS

Karen Hallion mashes Dr. Who with Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon!  An apt comparison.  Just as the crayon guides Harold through improbable distances, so does the Tardis — its ability to navigate the universe is as impressive as that purple crayon.

Harold and the Purple Screwdriver

Hat tip to Fashionably Geek and Gene Kanenberg Jr. (on Facebook).  The t-shirt is available here.

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I am the Lorax. I speak for the Thneeds?

The Lorax: teaser poster (2012)The commercials for The Lorax film say:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the tweens.1

The commercials for the many Lorax tie-ins say:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the SUVs.2

I am the Lorax. I speak for the pancakes.3

I am the Lorax. I speak for the diapers.4

But what does the film itself say?  In its own way, Illumination Entertainment’s film adaptation actually does speak for the trees.  Sure, having the film’s male lead (Ted, voiced by Zac Efron) drive a gigantic motor-scooter isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. Why not give him a bicycle, or, better, the Seussian equivalent of a bicycle? That said, the kid only gets his ecological consciousness raised near the end of the film. So, perhaps having him buck social convention prior to the awakening of his conscience would have been less plausible for his character.

In any case, he does get the message. Initially, he seeks a Truffula seed solely to impress the girl he has a crush on — Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift. (She’s named for Geisel’s widow, and he’s named for Theodor Seuss Geisel himself.) However, by film’s end, the Once-ler has convinced Ted of the Lorax’s message. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Ted, defending his goal of planting the last Truffula seed in the town square, announces, “I’m Ted Wiggins. And I speak for the trees!” Indeed, the movie manages to work the book’s central message in twice:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

Realizing what the “UNLESS” left by the Lorax must mean, The Once-ler delivers this line, just as he does in the book.  Later, just before the credits roll, the filmmakers put the full quotation up on the screen:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

— Dr. Seuss

In The Lorax’s film adaptation, the book’s environmental message comes through loud and clear.

It also amplifies the book’s depiction of capitalism as amoral.  In the “How Bad Can I Be?” number, the Once-ler (in the narrative of his past) sings about the “biggering and biggering” of his business: “My conscience is clear. I’ve done nothing illegal. I have my rights.”  Just after he sings, “nothing is going to stop me,” the Super-Axe-Hacker cuts down the last Truffula tree, and the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) tells him, “That’s it. The very last one. That may stop ya.”  This puts the lie to the plaque on the wall of his mansion, glimpsed earlier in the song:

TOO BIG

TO FAIL

The Once-ler.

Aligning the Once-ler’s Thneed business with the mismanaged banking industry, the film reminds us that no one is too big to fail. The Once-ler’s remorse for destroying the trees also indicates that all business decisions are moral ones: what is legal or financially remunerative may not also be moral.

Driving this point home, the film creates a second villain who, unlike the Once-ler, does not develop a conscience during the movie.  Voiced by Rob Riggle, O’Hare is the businessman who runs Thneedville, where our protagonist and everyone but the Once-ler lives. He makes his money selling air. Thneedville is a walled-in, completely artificial city: As we learn at the beginning of the film, it’s “a town without nature, not one living tree.” Visually, it looks a little too appealing, like a Seussian amusement park.  The grey, desiccated Street of the Lifted Lorax more effectively makes vivid the effects of pollution.  However, the film shows us that scene, too. And it exposes O’Hare’s mercenary nature: he doesn’t want a tree in Thneedville because it’s bad for business. Warning Ted to cease venturing outside Thneedville (where the Once-ler lives), he says, “I make a living selling fresh air to people. Trees — they make it for free.  So, I see this as a threat to my business.”

As you will have already discerned, yes, the film is didactic. Of course, the book was didactic, too. Both offer entertaining didacticism — brightly colored landscapes, rollicking anapestic verse, and, in the film, more fully developed characters, dance numbers, a lively score by and even a tween crush.  Seuss purists may complain: but the book has no dance numbers, no tween crush, no Thneedville, no O’Hare, and the Once-ler does not play the guitar!  All of that is true.  If you were hoping for a movie that was slavishly faithful to Seuss’s original book, then the film will disappoint.

However, a picture book and a film each have different strengths and weaknesses.  An attempt to create a literal rendition of the book would fail,… and would probably be quite short.  The question to ask is not: Was the film faithful to the book?  No film can be faithful to its original source, and nor should it aspire to be.  The question to ask is: How well did the director, writers, actors, animators, etc. translate the experience of the book into the medium of animated film?  And: Did their film manage to convey the core experience of the book?  In the case of The Lorax, the answer is: Yes.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Dr. Seuss himself would like the film — or most of it, anyway.

Kelloggs' Frosted Mini-Wheats, featuring the Grinch (2000)I doubt Seuss would appreciate seeing his Lorax selling SUVs, diapers, or pancakes, just as I suspect he would have disapproved of the Grinch being used to sell cereal, candy, and soda.  The 2000 live-action Grinch film had its title character selling Frosted Mini-Wheats, Hershey’s candies, and Sprite — among many other products.  When Seuss’s anti-consumerist grouch (the Grinch) is selling Frosted Flakes or his environmental protector (the Lorax) is selling SUVs, there’s a problem.

Yes, I recognize that product tie-ins are a standard way to underwrite the astronomical costs of a big-budget film. Furthermore, I’m aware that Seuss was an advertising man himself: until the publication of The Cat in the Hat (1957), he made his living by creating advertisements, not children’s literature.  In other words, I’m not trying to represent Seuss as a morally uncomplicated, anti-consumerist figure.  He was a commercial success in part because he was able to apply what he learned in advertising to writing and illustrating books for children.

However, you don’t have to be a Seuss scholar to see that the Lorax should be speaking for the trees, not the SUVs. As the book and the film make clear, we really don’t need more Thneeds.

My rating for the film: B+.

My rating for the tie-ins: F.


1. The trailer plays up the romance narrative, which (mercifully) doesn’t figure as prominently in the film.  Below, the longer version.  The short ads give the whole love-interest angle even more prominence.

2. In connection with the film, the Lorax is selling the Mazda CX-5 as “Truffula Tree-Certified.”  In addition to running on TV, this ad ran in the theatre prior to the start of the film.  Oy.

3. As the Horton Hears a Who! film (which I would also recommend) did, The Lorax is selling food of dubious nutritional merit.  That is, both are selling food from the International House of Pancakes.  At IHoP, you can buy Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cakes and Truffula Chip Pancakes.

True, the commercial above indicates that IHoP is also giving away free seeds — which, at least, is something.

4. Seventh Generation is selling diapers bearing the Lorax’s likeness.  In their defense, they’re trying to make healthier diapers (which is more in line with The Lorax‘s message).  Of course, they are disposable, which isn’t great for the environment.

The Lorax: diapers by Seventh Generation

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Cushlamochree! Barnaby on stage!

Mr. O'Malley69 years ago today, the first daily strip of Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby ran in the newspaper PM.  One year from today, Fantagraphics will begin reprinting Barnaby in full (co-edited by me and Eric Reynolds) — and the University Press of Mississippi will publish my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  In anticipation of both events, I bring you … Barnaby on stage!

Charles Friedman and Tommy Hamilton, 1946.  Friedman was the director. Hamilton portrayed Barnaby.

In September 1946, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley made their stage debut. Adapted by Jereome Chodorov, the play initially seemed like it would be a great success.  After reading Chodorov’s script, Elia Kazan thought the play would be a hit.  Before its debut, Columbia Pictures bought film rights.  But, as was the case with the previous year’s radio adaptation, Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley did not live up to initial expectations.  It had but four performances — two in Wilmington, Delaware, and two in Baltimore, Maryland.  Before ever making it to New York, it closed for repairs… and that turned out to be the last of it.

With thanks to Thomas Hamilton (who played Barnaby), above is a photo of himself and director Charles Friedman.  Also thanks to him, here are a few pages from early the script, leading up to Mr. O’Malley’s entrance.  (Sally is Mrs. Baxter, Barnaby’s mother; John is Mr. Baxter, Barnaby’s father.)

Jerome Chodorov, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Act I, page 6

Jerome Chodorov, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Act I, page 7

Jerome Chodorov, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Act I, page 8

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Harry Potter and the Two-Part Finale

In advance of the film’s release, Kansas State University’s Media Relations asked us to talk about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  We did.  They taped us, and edited the results down to 3 minutes.  Karin is on the right.  And that’s me on the left.

They also put out a news release on Friday of last week. And no, we have not seen the new film yet either.  Looking forward to it, though!

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Scott Pilgrim vs. Scott Pilgrim: Believe the Hype

Scott Pilgrim: Movie PosterJust back from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which (as you may have read by now) is a fantastic adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s si­x-volume series of graphic novels.  This is why.  Director Edgar Wright understands what O’Malley is trying to do.  As in the books, the film treats narrative as a playful, allusive, genre-bending game.  Put another way: it’s not about the story.  It’s about the way O’Malley and Wright tell the story — virtuosic understanding of form, kinetic sense of visual movement, and hyper-consciousness of … everything. Really — of everything. Narrative structure, video games, comic books, action films, rock clichés, sit-coms, and emotion.

I say emotion because at the heart of the story, there is, well, heart.  Three hearts.  Scott Pilgrim’s, Ramona Flowers’, and Knives Chau’s.  And all three characters do learn something about love during the film — that it comes with baggage, that you need to respect yourself, and that it’s worth fighting for.  That emotional resonance — wonderfully delivered by Michael Cera (Scott), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona), and Ellen Wong (Knives) — gives this fast, funny, clever film enough weight to keep things grounded.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)What’s fun, though, is the way Wright packs the scenes with references and jokes.  O’Malley does this sort of thing, too.  The little boxes that give you “fun facts” about the characters also appear in the comics, as do the references to videogames.  Wright does, of course, make some changes — moving pieces of plot around, adding some new gags and scenes.  But he understands the essence of what O’Malley is doing.  If we (taking Linda Hutcheon’s advice) think of adaptation as a kind of translation, then these two quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” are key to evaluating any film version of another work (in this case, Wright’s version of O’Malley’s novels).  First, “no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife . . . the original undergoes a change.”1 Second, “[t]he task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.”2 I have no idea whether Wright has read Benjamin, but he grasps both of these ideas.  In the case of the first, he understands that attempting to undertake a “faithful” adaptation is impossible.  As Hutcheon3 notes, different media have different strengths and weakness: attempting a literally faithful adaptation simply doesn’t work.  What works in a comic-book format will not necessarily work on screen, and vice-versa.  In the case of the second point, Wright sees O’Malley’s intended effect, which is not merely a mash-up of a relationship story with ninja narratives and Final Fantasy II.  It is this, but it’s also using the storytelling techniques of these media to tell its own story.  And it’s the confidence in deploying these techniques with the precision, verve, and nerve that only a master can do.

I know that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has received a lot of hype … along with reviews by some people who didn’t get it (deftly dismantled by Linda Holmes at NPR).  This a case though when one can safely dismiss the detractors and (with apologies to Chuck D) believe the hype.  Beyond the film’s many innovations, it’s also a really fun evening at the movies.

—————–

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (1968; New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 73.

2. Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 76.

3. Any interesting insights about adaptation here derive from Linda Hutcheon’s excellent book, A Theory of Adaptation (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).  Any other insights likely derive from my own essay on the Harry Potter movies: “Lost in Translation?: Harry Potter, from Page to Screen,” which appears in Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, revised edition, ed. Elizabeth Heilman (Routledge, 2009), pp. 275-290.

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