The new film version of Charlotte’s Web stands in the shadow of two earlier masterpieces. One, of course, is E. B. White’s classic 1951 children’s novel, the best-beloved of White’s three children’s books (though my second favorite of the three, ahead of Stuart Little but behind The Trumpet of the Swan). The other is the 1995 film Babe, which pioneered live-action talking animal movies, and remains the standard by which they are judged. Based on Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig, which has been called “the British Charlotte’s Web,” Babe the film actually outshines both its own source material and even White’s beloved novel.
White’s Charlotte’s Web is joyously alive, and his porcine protagonist, Wilbur, is sympathetic and ingenuous. As a main character, though, Wilbur is passive and somewhat weak. His story is all about what others can do for him, never what he can do, either for himself or anyone else. Next to the plucky, unprejudiced hero of Babe, Wilbur seems passive and diffident — hardly the special creature that the spider Charlotte makes him out to be in the words she spins into her web. To their credit, the makers of Charlotte’s Web have made some effort to rectify this. Borrowing a page from Babe, they’ve subtly recast Wilbur as a blithe spirit whose positive outlook and accepting attitude come as a breath of fresh air in the Zuckermans’ barn. In this retelling, Charlotte the spider is regarded with distaste by the other barnyard animals; her friendship with Wilbur is as much his gift to her as hers to him.
Competently directed by Gary Winick (13 Going on 30), the film basically sticks to the plot of the book, and the story’s essential charm is echoed in the film. (This is more could be said for How to Eat Fried Worms, the last film from Walden Media, once known for the fidelity of its adaptations of children’s novels.) At the same time, the film also dumbs down White with excursions into gimmicky broad humor and bestiary slapstick — something the makers of Babe found unnecessary to do. (I’m tempted to contrast the film with this year’s charming, classy Lassie — but alas, almost no one saw it, so the makers of Charlotte’s Web would be unlikely to view it as a model for their film.)
Most of White’s supporting characters, particularly the animals, have been coarsened into comic mugging caricatures. The goose and gander — much like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in Walden’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — have been transformed into a comic bickering couple (Cedric the Entertainer and Oprah Winfrey). The crusty old sheep has morphed into a peevish snob (John Cleese) perpetually exasperated with the wooly-mindedness of his fellows. There’s also a pathologically arachnophobic horse (one-time horse whisperer Robert Redford), some flatulent cows (Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire), and a pair of roguish but birdbrained crows (Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin). A few of these schticks are funny, especially the crows, and also Cleese’s sheep (“Just because we’re sheep doesn’t mean we have to follow!”). Others fall as flat as Redford’s horse fainting at Charlotte’s remarks about drinking the blood of bugs. All of it, though, burns screentime that could have been better used to put more of what White actually wrote on the screen.
Take the indelible scene in which Wilbur brashly announces his intention to try to spin a web, induces Templeton to tie a bit of string to his tail, and flings himself twice off from the highest spot of the manure pile — crashing both times to the ground. Recall Charlotte’s sensible observation: “You lack two things needed for spinning a web. You lack spinnerettes, and you lack know-how.” episode is alluded to in the film, but reduced to a throwaway bit during a montage highlighting Wilbur’s exuberant sense of fun rather than his inexperience. Why not skip the fainting horse bit (or the goofy Raiders homage in Templeton’s tunnel, with the rotten egg rolling after the rat like the boulder thundering after Indy), and do justice to this classic learning experience instead?
The film dumbs down the grown-up humans, too, making them duller and more docile than their literary counterparts. No longer does Fern (Dakota Fanning, perhaps a bit precious for the tomboyish Fern) have to plead with her father for Wilbur’s life, as she does in the book, or convince him to give her the pig. Instead, she simply takes the piglet from her father’s arms, declaring firmly, “I absolutely will not let you kill him.” Nor are the Zuckermans any longer sensible enough to wonder whether the message in the web has more to say about the spider rather than the pig; instead, they immediately and unquestioningly accept the message in the web as “a miracle.” (I was initially baffled by a line from the Zuckermans’ pastor — one of those generic Hollywood men of the cloth who wears clerical blacks and a Roman collar but is called “Minister” instead of “Father” — who greets the Zuckermans with the words “What brings you here? Divinity?” I have since been informed that “divinities” are the name of the confectionary sweetmeat the pastor proffers with his greeting; though the Zuckermans’ response seems to imply the religious pun.)
The filmmakers smooth out and gloss some of the book’s rougher edges — in the process subtly sapping something of the book’s joys. Wilbur’s desperate loneliness and boredom on a rainy day in the barn prior to meeting Charlotte have been softened; instead of sobbing disconsolately on the manure pile, he gaily capers about his enclosure trying to make friends. Yet the lack of desperation makes Charlotte’s appearance less momentous; Wilbur’s need is less gnawing, so Charlotte’s friendship is less pivotal.
White was a renowned expert on style; The Elements of Style, coauthored with William Strunk, Jr., is an indispensable guide for writers. Screenwriters Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) utilize White’s writing about half as often as they should. The dialogue is often White’s, though mixed with comic mugging from the supporting cast. Yet for some reason the script utilizes almost wholly original voiceover narration, jettisoning virtually all of White’s graceful prose in favor of the screenwriters’ own musings, which are no match for White. Gone are such sentences as “When your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it’s always hard to sleep” and “Nobody, of the hundreds of people who had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important role of all.” In their place are easy clichés that any reader of Elements of Style should have avoided: “There’s an old saying that ignorance is bliss…” and “She lived on in the hearts of those that knew her.”
Here’s how the film’s narrator describes Zuckerman’s barn: “Come to think of it, it couldn’t be more ordinary. … But sometimes if you take two ordinary things and put them together, they become less ordinary… The barn was full of living things, but that didn’t mean it was full of life.” Compare that to White’s vividly olfactory evocation: “It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a peaceful smell — as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.” Why would anyone replace the latter with the former? Only in the closing moments does the narration belatedly harken to White for the final lines about the rarity of meeting someone who is both a good friend and a good writer.
Among the talented cast, which includes a rather bland Julia Roberts as Charlotte and 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay as Wilbur, the standout is unquestionably Steve Buscemi as Templeton the rat. Ideally cast in the role voiced to perfection in the 1973 cartoon by Paul Lynde, Buscemi more than makes the part his own, and is the best thing about the film. (One oddity about Kay’s performance as Wilbur: Though we watch Wilbur grow into young adulthood, the pig’s voice stays high and squeaky.)
All in all, Charlotte’s Web is fair family entertainment, though the story would have been better served by a more faithful adaptation — and more inspired direction. The basic appeal of White’s story is sturdy enough to survive the filmmakers’ more dubious choices, and the emotional climax may even leave viewers with a lump in their throat. Even so, I’d rather rewatch the cartoon with my kids, or better yet, reread the book.
Remarkably, Stuart Little 2 manages to be both more satisfying for adults and more kid-friendly than the original. Older viewers will appreciate the sequel’s stronger story and witty script; and even little kids who might have found the original film’s menacing Central Park gangster cats too intense may be able to watch this film’s villainous falcon without fear of bad dreams.
Just as no writer or editor can do without a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, so no child’s library is complete without one or more of the latter writer’s beloved trilogy of children’s books: Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Trumpet of the Swan (1970).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.