Friday, we went to see The Tale of Despereaux. Spoilers and all that, for Despereaux in all forms.
Until Friday night, I'd always held a relativly simple rule regarding books that are adapted into films: read the book first. Jackass. Now, it seems that rule needs some... tweaking.
This is not a criticism of the flick—at least, not directly. The Tale of Despereaux is, I would say, a fine enough movie, flawed in ways both bizzare and unneeded, but not fatally so. I didn't feel moved by it, but not every kid's movie has to have a Dori-and-Marlin "You think you can do these things, but you can't, Nemo..." gutpunch to it. The movie was good. It was more than satisfactory for both children and for adults who aren't expecting the second coming of Stitch.
One thing that The Tale of Desperaux is decidedly not, however, is The Tale of Despereaux.
This is a complicated point, so I'd understand if you wanted to reread it. All cleared up? Good. Onwards.
The Tale of Despereaux, being the tale of a small mouse, a princess, a spool of thread, and some soup, is a Newberry-winning novel by Kate DeCamillo. You may have seen it in the stores: a mouse on the cover, a loop of red thread around his waist with a needle thrust into it, rushing off towards a future which is uncertain and probably dire, and which must be faced. This is a story for the ages and all ages. A story about heroism, yes. And about storytelling, about how the stories we tell each other matter. And about what makes people do bad things. And about how it is always the outsider, the outcast, the freak who has the chance to be great. And about how we can heal, and how there is a way (as Rahim Khan promised) to be good again, but also about being good again is never the same as having been good in the first place. How Happy Ever After is out of reach, but we can, we must strive for the best end we can atain, knowing that we may never win the princess's heart, but to strive is all we have the way we'd hoped. We can have the light, it tells us. But we may never be of it. And a thousand other things besides.
And all of these may be in the film, in bits and pieces. But never at full strength. At the same time, the film adds a bevvy of completly sepearate (and arguably ugly) messages laid on, most notablly one about being fearless. Not brave, not the bravery of the coward who knees knocking holds his ground, but the fearlessness of the madman who charges the dragon because he sees no reason not to. Desperaux is changed from a total outsider whose sin is that he fundamentally finds beauty in a world that none of the other mice know to a mere oddball who endangers the community by acting as though the world were a safe one. The paper dreamer is turned into a digital daredevil, who leaps into a danger that his literary forebear (quite sensibly) faints at the thought of facing. Faints twice, in fact. It is easier to admire the daredevil. But it is the dreamer that we must aspire to become.
Not a single character survives the adaptation: Chiaroscuro is turned from a light-loving rat who, driven back into the dark, seeks revenge as light's subsitute, into an outsider who is il at ease in the dungeion; the Princess is made darker. Even the nature of the three socities is shifted: the rats are turned from dark-dwelling Mephisto-like masters of psycological torture to a crudely civilized race of proto-Roman bloodsport worshipers whose city, far from dark, has more matches than a smoker's loungue; the mice are made cowards rather than reactionaries, and given (like the rats) far too urban, far too human a lifestyle for my liking. The human kingdom is stripped of the grit where a father might sell his daughter ofr a blanket to a man who will box her ears, and turned into a happy-fairytale land where divine writ can change the weather and where soup is supremely elevated to a position normally reserved for the divine. Perhaps because it's in the title of the book, which makes me wonder what happened to the spool of thread, which started out deserving its eponymous role.
Despite the preceding sentence, the two paragraphs before that, and all the other words that might lead you to think otherwise, the movie itself is fine. Had I not read the book, I would only have had problems with the fact that outlawing soup keeps the rain from falling for no good reason besides quirky metaphysics, and that Desperaux glides with his ears twice in a wholly futile manner, a trick that seems pointedly pointless. But these can be allowed, in the same way that I can allow for the silly vegetable soup sous-chef, who is somewhat jarring but still can be allowed in a movie not on a book where such a creature clearly has no business.
If you were to write out a basic plot summery for both book and movie, you'd see many differences, but also a fair number of similarities; compared to, say, the Ironman movie vs. the earliest Ironman comic books, they're practically one and the same. And yet...
Both works feature a trial of Despereaux for the crime of consorting with the Princess (among other acts). The facts are apparent in both hearings; the verdicts and sentences are identical. But the procedings are somewhat difficult. In the film, Desperaux is offered the chance to explain his actions. He responds that the book he read was intersting, and the princess he spoke with was beautiful. And this is the wrong thing to say.
In the book, what he is asked, what he is offered, is the chance to admit fault. An atonement which will not save his body, but will (we are told) save his soul. Admit your fault, and it will be easier. He responds that he has no fault to confess. And this is the wrong thing to say.
These two exchanges are similar. But they are not the same. And in between the two, I think, lies the world.
So, if you want to see a mouse in theatres this New Years, do yourself a favor: hold off on the book. Wait for it. Because you owe it to yourself to read it, you truly do. But once you've seen gold, silver seems all the more tarnished.
Is this pretentious? Two thousand words on a kid's cartoon which basically say "see it if you want; it's okay"? I guess, probably.