Messing About in Boats

`This has been a wonderful day!’ said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. `Do you know, I`ve never been in a boat before in all my life.’

`What?’ cried the Rat, open-mouthed: `Never been in a — you never — well I — what have you been doing, then?’

`Is it so nice as all that?’ asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

`Nice? It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. `Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolute nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: `messing — about — in — boats; messing — — ‘

On Sunday PBS aired a new production of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and I’m not sure what I think about it. Now I admit that I am not a fan of live action animal personification. I just don’t like grown-ups dressed-up as furry beasts — it creeps me out most of the time. So I did like that Ratty, Mole, Toad, and Badger were played as people with a few animal-like tics. And I did like that they were more or less playing either overgrown schoolboys (Rat, Mole, and Toad) or kindly schoolmaster/uncle (Badger). I mean, Grahame’s Edwardian children’s book seems basically a schoolboy’s dream —-lots of wonderful meals, games, adventurous play, and so forth. It was delightful to catch a glimpse of Anne Maxwell Martin as the jailer’s daughter and I have no complaint with any of the actors actually. The script writers over-focused on Toad, no doubt figuring that his story was the most exciting, but it made for a rather lightweight production overall.

The weakest aspects of the production for me were Ratty and Mole; while still sweet and humorous they are simply not sufficiently well developed as characters. Both are so poignant in the book, especially Mole. I think few of us who love the book can forget the scene when Mole finds his home, months after abandoning it to go play with Rat.

`I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: `not like — your cosy quarters — or Toad’s beautiful hall — or Badger’s great house — but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat — and everything came back to me with a rush — and I wanted it! — O dear, O dear! —

Frankly I can’t imagine many kids enjoying the production. much less being intrigued enough afterwards to want to read the book. In fact, it made me wonder how many kids read it today. Now I’ve written often here and elsewhere of my attraction to the so-called classics. I just finished reading aloud Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and soon my class will be reading the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But both of these work today — I’m not so sure about The Wind and the Willows.

The story has such a dated feel; it is very much about a bunch of old boys (in the British public school tradition) and no girls “messing about,” there is some ugly class commentary (when you get to those inhabitants of the Wild Wood), one of the oddest odes to paganism or something ever, and there is hardly a female to be seen (not surprising since it sort of replicates a boys’ school).

So do kids read The Wind in the Willows much today? And if so, what do they think of it? Anyone want to convince me that this production was better than I think it was? Or anything else about this story, classics, and/or Grahame? I’m all eyes and ears!

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8 Comments

Filed under Children's Literature

8 responses to “Messing About in Boats

  1. I could only watch this with partial attention, but it disappointed me. The old stop-action animation version (1983, with Ian Carmichael as the voice of Ratty) is lovely, and does get the Rat/Mole characterizations right–it leaves Toad alone for long stretches, as does the novel. I’ve never seen the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” sequence filmed, though, and I’m not sure kids do really like the book, other than the ones (like my son) who have it read to them very young, along with repeated viewings of the old video.

    The most convincing reading I have of it is that each animal represents a facet of the human (or maybe just male?) psyche:, or a developmental stage Toad is a greedy, generous toddler; Rat and Mole are the twinned aspects of the adolescent, loving adventure and loving home; Badger is the parent, resentful and loving. But that’s a story far more interesting to adults than children, I think, who don’t want to know that they can’t be Toad when they grow up! There was a good piece in Salon some time ago about the novel that focused on Grahame’s son as the model for Toad, but I can’t track it down right now.

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  2. I saw that on PBS too and I wondered what everyone else thought. I blogged it too. I didn’t think I would like it at all but then I got into it and found it funny and enjoyable. I really didn’t think I would be able to stand the human actors, but actually it was well done. Toad got on my nerves, but then I started to like him.

    I loved loved loved that book growing up. You are right, it is an old school boy’s book, but I liked it anyway because of the idylic outdoor life I guess. I think the language is beaufiful. When I have tried to read it to first graders they didn’t care for it as much, nor did my oldest son. Not sure why…

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  3. Cloudscome, on child_lit some people said it worked for their children when read aloud or as an audio book. Years ago I read it aloud to my class (usually skipping that Piper chapter) and it worked. But I’m no longer sure it will.

    I didn’t mind the PBS production (at least not as much as some on child_lit who detested it:), but I didn’t love it either.

    Libby, that analysis is very convincing to me. I vaguely recall that Salon article too.

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  4. My six year old and I listened to the audio book a few months ago, and he loved it…but they did edit out the Piper chapter, the bit with sea rat, and also the Christmas chapter where Mole finds his home, so there was more Toad-focused Action. Since this was my least favorite part of the book, and I love the illustrations deeply, I was less impressed. I tried to read the missing bits out loud to him myself, but he was completley uninterested.

    I think that the children who will really love this book forever are not the ones who love Toad’s adventures, but the ones who love Mole — the shy book-loving introverts.

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  5. hope

    What’s the best audio book version of The Wind in the Willows, does anyone know? I’d like to listen to it on a road trip this summer.

    hope

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  6. I was so looking forward to this PBS Wind in the Willows, and so disappointed with it. Toad made me feel like I was watching La Cage aux Folles instead of one of my favorite books.
    I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read the book after seeing it. But kids are reading it. I have booktalked it to 6th and 7th graders. At that age, they are jaded enough to enjoy the nostalgic innocence of the book. I discovered it at age 15 and it was such a welcome respite from the stress of high school!

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  7. I missed the PBS production (rats!), but was skeptical about the whole live-action thing. I think Charlotte makes a good point: it’s possible that the kids who will love this book the most are the introverts. And, I would possibly add, who read the book on their own, on their own terms. I’m not convinced that this is a read-aloud book. So much of the enjoyment is in the language and the quiet scenes, and I’m not sure if those scenes are as enjoyable read out loud? I could be wrong. My husband and I read it out loud a few years back on a long car trip, and we still liked it. But I’d read it before, and there were no kids around to voice an opinion. Sonja’s point that you have to be a bit jaded to really enjoy the innocence is a very interesting one as well.
    (I was pointed here by Brookeshelf, by the way…I’m looking forward to exploring your other posts!)

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  8. I’m afraid I can’t offer any recommendation for an audio version, Hope.

    Charlotte, I get the sense that the really young kids who have this read to them go for Toad, something I can understand.

    I wonder, Sonja, if those older kids reading it are enjoying the Mole/Ratty storyline as much as Toad’s.

    Josephine, I think it works both ways. I loved reading it on my own, but used to read it aloud with great success. I agree with you about the language, but that works aloud, I think, as well as on one’s one. And welcome here, by the way!

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