Judging by the reception of recent Dr. Seuss movie adaptations, the general reaction to the news that a CGI “Horton Hears a Who” is on the way might be summed up as a rousing “Uh-oh.”
The trailers promise “the world of Dr. Seuss as you’ve never seen it before,” but is that what anybody wants?
If making a Seuss movie is the ruination of childhood, then the film industry has been destroying little kids for a long, long time: The operatic “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.” was released in 1953 under the iconic, unevenly lettered Seuss banner. But then again, Seuss himself wrote the lyrics, screenplay and story. And just about nobody’s heard of it.
At the same time, the gold standard of Seuss-to-screen, the 1966 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is not so much a palatable adaptation as a staple of Christmas in America, a marker of the season woven into the very culture. How is it that the work of one man is so successfully interpreted in some visual translations but such critical disasters in others?
For starters, the Seuss sensibility is notoriously difficult to translate to live action; the author’s refusal to corral his own illustrations with straight lines, for example, was so pervasive that in the Seuss Landing sector of Orlando’s Islands of Adventure, there’s emphatically not a straight line to be found until a parent whips out a credit card in the “Cats, Hat, & Things” gift shop (Thing One and Thing Two onesies, $15. A piece.)
Subtext in SeussSeuss’ world is appreciable on a myriad of levels, for the author was a left-leaning political cartoonist before moving into children’s literature. The application of his work ranges from personal rights to armchair psychology and back again: “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” is a highly popular commencement speech reference, “Horton” itself has been cited for years by the pro-life movement (“A person’s a person, no matter how small”), and at the height of the Watergate scandal, Seuss sent then-columnist Art Buchwald a copy of “Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!” with the name of the main character crossed out and replaced with “Richard M. Nixon.”
It’s tempting, then, to find adult subtexts within these highly intelligent children’s books. There are, for example, Very Serious arguments out there stating that “The Cat in the Hat” is a parable of the patriarchy, fraught with pink bathtub rings standing in for sexually transmitted diseases and tall striped hats making phallic statements. If readers can get from “The sun did not shine” to there, it’s not a far leap for filmmakers to load their Seuss movies with adult-level themes for unpacking on all possible cinematic levels.
This is why, perhaps, critics and audiences roundly rejected Mike Myers’ version of “The Cat in the Hat.” The fretful fish was present, both Things were there, and so was the red and white hat. But so was Alec Baldwin as an evil neighbor, a scene in a nightclub, and the Cat waving about a muddy garden tool while smirking, “Dirty hoe!”
“Cat in the Hat” was produced in the post-“Shrek” era, when double entendres dressed in princess gowns and talking donkeys first became a welcome finger in the eyeball of sugary children’s fare. That wasn’t the case with Ron Howard’s live-action go at “Grinch” in 2000. While the effort divided audiences (its Rotten Tomatoes rating stands at 52 percent) and many appreciated Jim Carey’s devoted performance, some were taken aback by such extrapolations as slathering the Grinch with character motivation and a love interest.
Stick to the story, stupidIt took the utter genius of cartoonist Chuck Jones to successfully strike the balance in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” And unlike modern-day moviemakers, in addition to his singular talent, Jones had two other things on his side: The medium of animation, and Seuss as co-producer. They were a highly clever, book-faithful team, and the technology of the mid-’60s prevented Jones from slicking up the production beyond recognition. There would be no crotch kickings or Paris Hilton cameos in this adaptation.
But Seuss and Jones also worked together in an animated production of “Horton Hears a Who!” (life is, indeed, a circle), and the underrated special barely made a blip on the cultural landscape. The magical equation, perhaps, isn’t necessarily the talent involved, or even a default to animation. It’s the Seussness of it all, a respect for the mindset.
Beyond the stipulation that it is challenging to make feature-length films out of books with word counts between 200 and 2,000, the trick seems to be a willing submersion into all things Seuss — the curlicues of the intricate art work, the rhythm of the text, the view of small children as not consumers, but tiny human beings who just happen to wear Pull-Ups.
The 2008 version of “Horton Hears a Who!” is the first full-on CGI attempt, which suggests that audiences should brace themselves for what jarred many about live translations — the specter of characters made familiar in thin picture books suddenly presented in three-dimensional, full-throated surround sound. The inclusion of Carol Burnett in anything is rarely a bad idea, but does she sound like Sour Kangaroo?
And that’s the other burden under which Seuss translations labor: For literary purists, book-as-movie adaptations often flounder because rarely do the characters sound, look, or act as expected. Children’s books carry not only our own connotations, but the inflections and story-time-only voices of parents, teachers or grandparents. You can pay Jim Carrey 2.5 mil, but he’s just not Daddy.
There’s no arguing with silliness in purposeful preservation of childhood and finding new ways to present old truths. It’s just that when it comes to their Loraxes and their beezlenut stew, moviegoers can be awfully exacting.
Many thanks to The Readers at BlondeChampagne.com for sharing their reactions to all things Seuss. Columnist Mary Beth Ellis lives on the perilous Beltway edge of Washington, D.C., where she runs . Her first book is “Drink to the Lasses.” ()