Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Disney, where I over-analyse each Disney animated feature over the course of a year.
And never has a title chosen on a whim been more appropriate. What originally came as an idea I jotted down weeks before seeing the movie actually proves the perfect discussion topic. For whilst we have one story that is probably one of the most faithful adaptations ever made, we have another that is almost completely unrelated to its source material. Which one is which, and does that make one better than the other? Lets find out.
First off we start with the Wind in the Willows (even though it’s labelled second, take that what you will). The story is simple enough. The irascible Mr Toad often develops mania about the latest contraption, the focus of the story being his obsession with those new-fangled motor cars. He acquires one, but ends up being thrown into jail. He likewise escapes to find that the weasels and stoats have taken over the fabulous Toad Hall. With the help of his friends he manages to get rid of him. But, ladies and gentlemen, that is the loosest connection the film shares with its original material. Oh sure the plot points are there, but there are so many differences they are worth noting.
First off let us discuss the characters. Mole is, well, a mole. He fits both the book and movie interpretation. The adaptation hits the mark in that regard. Then there’s Water Rat, or Ratty in the movie. And here the film misses what the character is like. In the book the Water Rat is a rather laid-back rat, living life on the riverbank and spending his time boating and writing poetry. A bit stuffy at times but more often than not an easy going Edwardian gentleman. Very little in common with the movie’s portrayal as a stuffy aristocrat who’s probably never been near a boat in his life. But then there’s Badger, or Angus MacBadger in the movie. Now I think the obvious thing to note here is how they’ve changed from calling the animal’s name by its name and instead giving him a Christian name. This is by far the smallest change. In the book the Badger is a proud, firm fellow who is ultimately a good but somewhat aloof badger. He very rarely visits on people and have people visit him. But most of all he stays calm and collected, rational and smart. Unlike the film, where he’s a blustery fellow who constantly gets outraged by Toad’s misdemeanour. But the biggest change in characters comes with Mr Toad himself. And how the story is much quicker to turn him into more of a hero then the flawed villain he is in the book. How quick they are to paint him in the right than show him in the wrong. How the plot is morphed to better fit this new way. In what way, you ask?
Well the biggest and most glaring difference is the introduction of Winky the bartender, who swindles Toad out of Toad Hall after Toad unwittingly acquires a stolen car. Winky is painted as the clear antagonist who makes Toad look like a better person (err, toad), in comparison. A sub-plot completely absent in the book. In the book Toad is in the wrong by his own doing and escapes after several humiliations that teaches him to be more humble. The book never attempts to make him seem like the good guy, but rather a very flawed protagonist. So are there any other changes worth noting?
Two or three others include, first and foremost, Toad’s Horse Cyril Proudbottom. In the book he appears for one scene then disappears for the rest of the story. In the film he becomes Toad’s right-hand, err, horse. It is the inclusion of this that shows the biggest departure from the book: How much of the book is left out. Ignoring the removal of Nature Jesus Pan and Water Rat’s dreams of sailing the open port, a good first section of the book is taken up with the adventures of Rat and Mole. In fact Toad is introduced, forgotten about, and then only comes back to play in the second half (and even then in the original version he’s just one of the three plots running along rather than being the main focus). So whilst it does seem hypocritical for complaining that The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad focuses too much on Mr Toad it does rob a lot of what makes the story great. So what about the second half of this? How faithful is Ichabod’s story?
Truth be told it’s probably the most faithful adaptation of the story ever presented. There are times in the short where they directly lift from the story itself in terms of narration. If you haven’t read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow you should, it’s not bad. A bit unusual nowadays, but still good. But the story of schoolteacher and superstitious Ichabod Crane being either tricked by rival Brom Bones or really was attacked by the real Headless Horseman (depending on how you feel) is faithfully adapted here. There are only two things to over-analyse in relation to this short.
The first is whether this story is sexist towards women. On the surface level it is mostly because the lovely Katrina Van Tassel is nothing more than a reward between the two men. She is just an object of desire, nothing more. But this short mixes it up because, thanks solely to her animation (none of the characters ever actually speak, it’s all narration) we can see that she is fully aware of the situation and is deliberately playing the two off each other. In fact she has more control over the situation then either of the two men. So she is almost a stronger female character then many others that later come in Disney history.
And the other thing to note is the question about whether Ichabod Crane is a good or bad guy. The surface level is that he’s a good guy prosecuted by the bully Brom Bones and needlessly killed by the Headless Horseman. Going deeper down he’s more of a jerk who manipulates people into doing what he wants and only wants to marry Katrina for her money. But going even deeper I think he’s a good guy. Sure he’s manipulative thief and a bit of a dick, but I still like him. He’s guile and smart, using his brains to combat Brom Bones’ brute strength. And Brom isn’t necessarily a good guy. He’s a bully, despite the lack of malicious intent. He does make people submissive around him. But perhaps I only like Ichabod cos I’m also a bit of a dick as well.
So getting back to the topic, we have one faithful adaptation and one very loose adaptation. Does that make one automatically better than the other? Well the gut reaction tends to be that the more faithful an adaptation it is, the better it is. Don’t we complain when a film goes way off the mark and does something completely different to its source? In just this film alone I, well, I don’t DISLIKE the Wind in the Willows adaptation per say, but I think it would be better if it stuck closer to the source adaptation. So is this true across the board?
Well jumping back quickly to Pinocchio, there is a movie that is incredibly unfaithful to the source material. In no particular order here’s what happens in the book:
Gepetto, known as being a bit of a horrible person, buys a talking lump of wood and carves it into a wooden boy puppet who is quite a horrible marionette.
Pinocchio kills Jimmy Cricket with a hammer and has his feet burned off.
He escapes from Stromboli by crying and swaying the man’s heart.
He bites off the hand of the cat and gets hanged for his trouble.
His life is saved by the Fairy with the Blue Hair and goes to school.
He gets turned into a donkey fully, gets thrown into the sea to drown so the guy who brought him can make a drum out of his skin, only for fishes to eat off the donkey skin to have his marionette self revealed underneath.
He gets eaten and escapes from Monstro after finding out the Fairy with the Blue Hair died.
And finally becomes a real boy.
So read the book and watch the movie to see just how damn different the two things are. As far as adaptations goes it’s terrible. It changes so much. But it makes the film better as a result, doesn’t it? If it was a faithful adaptation it would have probably flopped hard. So does that mean being unfaithful is a good thing?
Well I have one last film to discuss before coming to my conclusion: Fantastic Mr Fox. Okay not a Disney film, but my God it’s so beautifully animated. I mean it is such something so amazing to behold. I highly recommend seeing some of the best stop animation ever made. But as an adaptation, it falls flat since it adds a whole third act not found in the book. It makes it up almost whole cloth (it was based on the original deleted ending of the book). However it still sticks to the spirit of the book and works out what makes the characters tic (at least the ones that appeared in the book and actually have characters). So is the movie now inferior because it adds so much new stuff not found in the source material, despite the amazing animation attached to it?
So lets sum up everything I’ve said. We have:
One loose adaptation.
One very faithfully adaptation.
One very unfaithful adaptation.
And a fourth somewhat loose but true to the spirit adaptation.
So which one is the best and which one is the worst?
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. What counts is whether the story still works on an emotional level in a way that makes us interested and engaged in what we’re watching. Isn’t that the goal of every story? To make us route for the protagonists, boo the antagonists, get invested in what we’re watching. Sure there are liberties taken with the source material, but we’re watching one person’s interpretation of what someone else wrote. Why would we want to watch the exact same thing as written? Isn’t it more interesting to see someone put their own spin on it and show the material from their point of view?
So there you have it. A look at the faithfulness of adaptations in relation to this week’s movie. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Next time: Is Cinderella Sexist?