Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Charlotte’s Web

We took the kids to see Charlotte’s Web last night as we round out the long Christmas break. It has been a couple years since I read it to my daughter, and my son is still slogging through Stuart Little but I’ve read it and seen the old animated version enough to know that I would probably cry. Of course, I did. My daughter cried too--because, as you know, the spider dies. She asked me if that was why I was crying. "Not really," I said, "though knowing that certainly adds to my tears." It was interesting to see that she sensed there was something more to my tears because they came at two different points in the story than hers did: when Charlotte tells Wilbur that his friendship made her (a spider, of all things!) beautiful and when Wilbur reflects that it’s not often you come across a good friend who is also a good writer. "Charlotte was both," he says to emphasize the rarity and the treasure of it.

I love that book because it very cleverly teaches a very grown up lesson about the transformative powers of love and and the need for and treasure of friendship in a way that children can grasp and even as adults can return to again and again.

The new movie is, by the way, a worthwhile effort and suitable for all ages. It does, however, walk very awkwardly between two time periods--the early 60s or late 50s (?) and the present. It was hard to tell when it was supposed to be as the wardrobe and settings seemed alternately retro and current. Adults may find that distracting, but kids won’t notice. Certainly the scene with the kids riding standing up in the back of the truck would not fly in the current times! (I saw more than a few mothers’ eyebrows raised indignantly at the prospect and then soften--probably as they remembered with fondness doing something very similar!) The ad-lib humor was decidedly not E.B. White’s--and often involved the obligatory jokes about bodily functions and other gross-out things that kids these days seem to favor (though perhaps they always did favor them--it’s just a new thing to pander to it). The crows, I must admit, were quite funny and, if not strictly from the book, added to rather than distracted from Templeton’s story line. I missed all the music ("Fine swine, wish he was mine, so what if he’s not so big . . .") that was a part of the old animated classic and I guess, if I had to pick between the two films, I still favor the original for that reason. But I see no real reason to choose if you can have them both and, of course, read the book. As I said above, this is a story you can come to again and again. (As I will and cry every time I do it!)

Discussions - 2 Comments

Thank you for the review, Julie. I resist going to movies based on favorite books because of the distressing changes scriptwriters, or directors, or somebody, have decided must be made to the plots. I understand that transforming the written story to an audio/visual experience will require some change. But really, to take a story beloved by so many readers that it has come be considered a classic, and think you can seriously "improve" it as they do? I suppose it makes it NOT the E.B. White story, but the director’s and that of the whole production company - as movies are art done on the committee plan. Then it is theirs and they are only nodding to White in thanks for the essence of the story. Would White appreciate what they did? Well, some such stories are practically masticated and digested while being made "theirs", and what is left is just what you’d expect.

If this is not too bad, I’ll take some kids and we will go see it. My daughter liked the book, while my sons never did. I’ll trust your judgment on the movie.


It is the "modern" gross-out humor that usually keeps me from taking children to such movies. I loathed those things when my children were young, as I was trying to tell my roughnecks that we do not speak of such things in public. Then there we are at some silly movie, that I foolishly paid to see, giving them this wink, wink and nod of complicity in vulgarity, as if over my parental head in a very public way. I wished the movie producers were on my side rather than trying to demolish my parental authority. It must have been funny because of the shock the first time or two, but now it is an onslaught. There is now a generation of parents raised on the stuff who do not bother teaching their kids those formerly common civilities, which is another reason never to send your child to public school.

My oldest son, being in a state of dire poverty, transcribed this for me as a Christmas gift. He knew how I was suffering with my students’ final papers, wherein they were showing me what I had taught them in the semester about writing, which was too often not nearly enough. Some kids really know the way to Mom’s heart. It is a little late in the season for some of the sentiments, but is apropos White.


EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns


We had a Scrooge in our office a few minutes ago, a tall, parched man,
beefing about Christmas and threatening to disembowel anyone who mentioned
the word. He said his work had suffered and his life had been made
unbearable by the demands and conventions of the season. He said he hated wise men, whether from the East or from the West, hated red ribbon, angels,
Scotch Tape, greeting cards depicting the Adoration, mincemeat, dripping
candles, distant and near relatives, fir balsam, silent night, small boy
sopranos, shopping lists with check marks against some of the items, and the
whole yuletide stratagem, not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten
thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon. He was in a savage state.
Before he left the office, though, we saw him transfigured, just Scrooge was
transfigured. The difference was that whereas Scrooge was softened by
visions, our visitor was softened by the sight of a small book standing on our
desk - a copy of Fowler’s "Modern English Usage."


"Greatest collection of essays and opinions ever assembled between covers,"
he shouted, "including a truly masterful study of that and which."


He seized the book and began thumbing through it for favorite passages,
slowly stuffing a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels into the pocket of
his great coat.


"Listen to this," he said in a triumphant voice, "’Avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious, but, if it is, all is spoilt.’ Isn’t that beautiful?"


We agreed that it was a sound and valuable sentiment, perfectly expressed.
He then began a sermon on that and which, taking as his text certain
paragraphs from Fowler, and warming rapidly to his theme.


"Listen to this: ’If writers would agree to regard that as the defining
relative pronoun, and which as non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but
it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice of either the most or of
the best writers.’"


"It was the practice of St. Matthew," we put in hastily, "Or at any rate, he
practiced it in one of the most moving sentences ever constructed: ’And lo,
the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and
stood over where the young child was.’ You’ve got to admit the which in
that sentence is where it ought to be, as well as every other word. Did you
ever read a more satisfactory sentence than that in your whole life?"
"It’s good," said our friend, "It’s good because there isn’t a ten-dollar
word in the whole thing. And Fowler has it pegged, too. Wait a minute. Here.
’What is to be deprecated is the notion that one can improve one’s style by
using stylish words.’ See what I mean about Fowler? But let’s get back to
that and which. That’s the business that really fascinates me. Fowler
devotes eight pages to it. I got so excited once I had the pages
photostatted. Listen to this: ’We find in fact that the antecedent of that
is often personal.’ Now, that’s very instructive."


"Very," we said, "And if you want an example, take Matthew 2:1 ’... there
came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Imagine how that simple clause could get loused up if
someone wanted to change that to who!"


"Exactly," he said, "That’s what I mean about Fowler. What was the sentence
again about the star? Say it again."


We repeated, "And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before
them, till it came and stood over where the young child was."


"You see?" he said, happily. "This is the greatest damn book ever written."
And he left our office transfigured, a man in excellent spirits. Seeing him
go off merry as a gig, we realized that Christmas is where the heart is.
For some it is in a roll of red ribbon, for some it is in the eyes of a
young child. For our visitor, we saw clearly saw Christmas was in a relative
pronoun. Wherever it is, it is quite a day.

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