So yesterday we took the fourth grade to the first showing of Charlotte’s Web at our local cinema and I’ve got to say that I can’t think of a better way for an adult to see a movie for kids — surrounded by the intended audience. We were eighty-nine children and eight adults (seven teachers and one poor member of the public sitting sensibly way in the back) in that auditorium. The children applauded appreciatively at various points in the film and overall were pleased. I was too, mostly.
First of all, I very much liked that it was live action rather than animation. The book is nominally termed a fantasy because of the talking animals, but White places them in such a real world (albeit a nostalgic one) that a successful film version needed to have real people and real animals (versus animated ones) for it to work for me. White’s images of the barn, the changing seasons, the fair, and the rest of the setting of the book are absolute perfection — and the filmmakers did a splendid job evoking them. The animals looked all quite real to me and I was completely fine with their voices — that some were big-name celebrities didn’t really matter much.
For most of the film I liked the way they so carefully and gently used White’s words and kept very very true to his spirit. The small changes and alterations worked just fine. In fact, I almost think they improved the book in one place — they broke up the Dr. Dorian chapter into a couple of different scenes— nice work that.
The Arables are all just right. Mr. Arable is nicely established from the start as a caring farmer — about his livelihood and his daughter. Beautifully done, I thought. Similarly, Mrs. Arable is worried appropriately about Fern. Avery is perhaps a little toned down, but not too much. As for Dakota Fanning, she is terrific and captures the Fern of my Charlotte’s Web just right.
As for the animals, Wilbur is just fine — he is the stand-in for the child viewer/reader and functions as that in the film. The animals are fine too — didn’t see why they felt the need to add in a horse, but whatever. The crows were another addition; they seemed to function as did the mice in Babe, that is mostly as amusing connectors between scenes. Sadly, the one animal that seemed a tad lacking was Charlotte. Part of that is the nature of trying to represent a spider, part of that was perhaps Julia Roberts, and part of it was the script — I mean, Charlotte’s wonderful “Salutations” just didn’t have the punch that it has in the book.
The images are just lovely — the barn, the children swinging, Templetons’ lair, the fair, the Arable’s kitchen, the town — all just right, to my mind. A hint as to what sort of nostalgia the filmmakers were aiming for can be seen in the book Fern reads to the animals —- I think (and please correct me if I’m wrong) it was Make Way for Ducklings.
So what wasn’t radiant? To my mind, things started to weaken at the fair. I felt till then that the filmmakers were sticking straight and true to the themes of the book — those of life and death — without getting too sweet or moralistic. That changed during the fair. The book’s chapter, “The Hour of Triumph” is complete comedy. Called to the grandstand to accept a special award for Wilbur, the humans and animals bumble and tumble about. Wilbur faints, Templeton bites his tail to revive him (which is the example my students give for his being heroic, by the way), Lurvy attempts to douse him in water and gets Mr. Zuckerman and Avery instead, Avery cavorts, and so on. The movie dispenses with this completely and replaces it with Mr. Zuckerman giving a perfectly straightforward speech on the wonder of Wilbur. No longer a bumbler, that Zuckerman. Too bad.
At the end the filmmakers get carried away overmoralizing about friendship — how the animals in the barn all were friends, etc. etc. Not White. He wrote “As time went on , and the months and years came and went, he was never without friends. Fern did not come regularly to the barn any more. She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen. But Charlotte’s children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, year after year, lived in the doorway.” See? In White’s book, Charlotte’s descendants are Wilbur’s friends not the barn animals. That’s important. Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s friendship was special; the book was about that, not a homily on friendship in general. And so, lovely as the imagery is at the end, the narration and sentiment is watered-down White.
Quibbles like that I aside, I would recommend it and (unlike the 1973 film) plan to use it with my class in the future. As for this year’s students, I’m giving them the last words of this review:
J thought it was, “…a great book and a great movie….The movie was so very terrific that I would definitely see it again.”
F thought it was, “…cool that they showed the process of Charlotte dying and it was cute that the ballooning baby spiders said, ‘Whee!’ and ‘Bye!’ in tiny, high voices.
M felt it was “really good” and that just as in the book she felt “sad at some parts and excited at parts.” Like myself she would have “added in the part where Templeton bit Wilbur’s tail to make it more funny.”
A felt “It really expressed the ideas (life and death) that the book was trying to tell you about.”
E “…enjoyed it as much as the real book. The movie was so very terrific that I would definitely go see it again.”
H felt that ‘the movie went along too fast” and that “Wilbur was the cutest animal.”
L felt it was “…an awesome movie. If I could see it again I definitely would.”
X’s “total opinon of the movie was good” and he gave it 4 stars.
Z, as I did, admired their portrayal of Doctor Dorian.
Aa particularly liked Templeton who he thought was “very very funny.”
Sh liked the addition of new animals and thought the movie was “funnier than the book.”
O wrote that “Wilbur looked and seemed so innocent” and that she almost cried,”… when Charlotte died. It was a powerful book and a powerful movie.”
Another O, on a second viewing, felt that they “covered the book very well.”
C agreed with her classmates that “this movie was really funny; also it was really sad in a way…”
B liked that it “wasn’t too long, but it wasn’t too short.” and gave it four stars.
S gave the movie a thumbs up and five stars and felt it was “full of excitement.”
L gave it five and a half stars. He felt they “included the most important lines and scenes.”
And finally, another M paraphrased White’s memorable final points, “It is not often that you come across a good writer and an amazing friend. Charlotte was both.”