Natalie Babbitt’s beloved 1975 children’s novel Tuck Everlasting, which I first read more than 20 years ago, is a sensitive, contemplative meditation on life and death that explores such questions as: Why do we have to die? What would it be like if we didn’t have to die? If you could choose to live indefinitely, would you do it? What if everyone had this choice, if no one ever had to die? What if nothing ever died, including mosquitoes? And so on.
These questions and others are touched upon in a handsome new film version, adapted from the book by screenwriters Jeffrey Lieber and James V. Hart (Contact) and directed by Jay Russell (My Dog Skip). (Babbitt’s book was also the subject of a low-budget 1980 production that I saw too long ago to comment on.) Together with this spring’s The Rookie, Tuck Everlasting represents Walt Disney Pictures’ best work in years.
The story, originally set in 1880 but moved to 1914 for the movie, concerns a sheltered young girl from a well-to-do family who is called "Winifred" by her overprotective parents and grandmother, and might be called "Winnie" by her friends if she had any. Winnie (Alexis Bledel of TV’s "Gilmore Girls") is so timid that when she decides to run away from home, she heads for the family-owned woods adjacent to her house, never actually setting foot off her parents’ property.
There, she happens upon a 17-year-old country boy named Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson, Insomnia), who becomes unexpectedly alarmed by her presence. Before she knows what’s happening, she’s been forcibly bundled onto a horse and whisked off to a ramshackle cabin on a lake, where she meets Jesse’s parents Angus and Mae (William Hurt and Sissy Spacek) and brother Miles (Scott Bairstow).
At this point, the movie missteps and stalls for awhile. It soon becomes clear that the Tucks, who seem almost as upset by Winnie’s abduction as Winnie herself, are protecting a secret. What this secret is comes out fairly directly in the book. Unfortunately, the movie delays this revelation for something like half an hour.
This is a significant structural flaw, for several reasons. First, the movie doesn’t use the time to reveal the Tucks’ secret slowly, in the way that, say, Haley Joel Osment’s secret comes out in bits and pieces during The Sixth Sense. Instead, after Winnie arrives at the Tuck cabin, the Tucks’ secret seems to go away for a half-hour or so, and the movie turns to idyllic scenes of Winnie and Jesse frolicking in fields, in swimming holes, on rock towers, etc.
As adorable as Bledel and Jackson are together, their innocent, Titanic-esque romance is less important than the Tucks’ remarkable secret. In fact, in the novel the Tucks’ secret is an ingredient in the tension between Winnie and Jesse. By deferring this revelation, the movie diminishes its romantic element.
The Tucks’ secret is also a factor in the novel’s portrayal of Winnie’s bonding with the rest of the Tuck family — which raises the second problem. In the book, Winnie is given to understand why the Tucks kidnapped her, which makes it easier for her to accept their having done so. The movie asks us to accept the same quick adjustment to Winnie’s indeterminate status as a kidnapping victim, even though she has no clue regarding the Tucks’ motives.
Thirdly, the movie doesn’t explain why the Tucks don’t just come out and tell Winnie their secret. When Winnie first arrives, the Tucks repeatedly assure her that they plan send her home as soon as possible. This makes sense in the book, where they proceed straightaway to explain about their secret, and plan to return her home the next day.
But in the movie, despite these assurances, no move is made to explain the secret or facilitate her return home for possibly days or even weeks, until Jesse finally takes it upon himself to tell her the secret he says he’s "sworn not to tell you." Why he’s sworn not to tell Winnie precisely what she’s supposedly there to learn is unclear.
Finally, by delaying the revelation of the Tucks’ secret, the movie leaves itself insufficient time to explore the very issues the story is about. For example, a key scene with Tuck and Winnie in a rowboat includes some of the book’s better lines ("We just are, like rocks beside the road"), but omits others ("I want to grow again… and change. And if that means I got to move on at the end of it, then I want that, too… Do you see now, child? Do you understand? Oh, Lord, I’ve just got to make you understand!").
Other than its curious hesitation about the Tucks’ secret, the movie’s biggest flaw is probably the ill-considered use of voiceover narration (finely read in dulcet tones by Elisabeth Shue). Bits of voiceover borrow a few out-of-context lines from Babbitt’s narration ("The woods was the center"), add a few clunky new lines ("For Winnie Foster, one thing was true: The heat of summer was not nearly so stifling as the formality of her life"), and finally return at the end to wrap up the moral of the story in a pretty pink bow. Yet the narration is too timidly used to establish a storybook feel or a persuasive authorial presence, or to give us otherwise inaccessible insight into the characters, or indeed to do much of anything but be a distraction.
In spite of such missteps, the heart of Babbitt’s story is here, and it’s strong enough to make the movie worth seeing. A scene revealing Miles’ tragic experiences is especially powerful, and the conflict receives an extra boost from a scene-stealing performance by Ben Kingsley (A.I.) as the ominous "man in the yellow suit," as he’s known both in the book and in the film. The man in the yellow suit is looking for the Tucks, and has his own ideas about how to exploit their secret. In one scene, set in a graveyard, he intimates his plans to a startled pastor in a roman collar, who can only reply: "You speak blasphemy, sir." Kingsley’s answer: "Fluently."
It’s not the pastor, but the Tucks themselves, who make the case against the yellow-suited man and his plans. Yet the movie goes beyond its source material in a low-key but well-conceived departure that enhances the themes of life and death while also explicitly alluding to the Christian hope of everlasting life — not merely indefinite extension of our earthly life, but rather the
sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.
These words, audibly delivered in a burial scene toward the end of the film, add a welcome layer of context to the story’s musings about life, death, and immortality.
Not that Babbitt’s book, or this film, is really about eternal life in the theological sense. Rather, Tuck Everlasting is about trying to imagine this life apart from the ravages of age and disease and finally death. What if you could be seventeen and healthy and beautiful until the end of the world? What if that would mean that your loved ones would grow old without you? What if you could share immortality with them? At what point would you do so? Would that be wise? Would parents give immortality to their children, and would it be a good thing to be always fifteen, or ten, or five? Can a perpetual 17-year-old be a good parent to a growing child?
These are worthwhile questions for children to think about as they contemplate their own mortality and the way of all flesh in this mortal world.
The film is enhanced by fine performances from all involved, particularly Bledel and Jackson, the quintessential Jesse. Fans of the book will note the departures; my feeling is that it makes sense for the movie to age Winnie from 10 to 15, and I liked a daring, dramatic reimagining of a key scene set at a jailhouse. Yet why omit one of the book’s more cinematic details: a bottle of water Jesse gives to Winnie, which becomes a physical symbol of a decision she must make and of her indecision as long as she retains it?
Tuck Everlasting isn’t a perfect movie or an ideal adaptation, but it’s a respectable, thoughtful one, and worth seeing.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.