02 February 2011

Arrietty on Page and Screen

Rite of passage: Outfitting Arrietty for her first borrowing expedition.

Mary Norton’s stories about the Borrowers, tiny people who live by pilfering humans’ food and everyday objects, are fantasies, but they’re serious. They stand among the most imaginative and eloquent I know on the subject of yearning: for freedom and adventure, for security and home, for luxury and comfort, for sufficiency and survival. These desires naturally conflict, and Norton’s books ably explore the collisions, making them appealing to the producers of movies and television. If the stories aren’t quite irresistible to those producers, it’s because of the technical demands that arise from the interactions of little Borrowers in the big human world.

Mary Norton

The books made a profound impact on me when I was young, and beyond the emotional chords Norton struck, she seemed to be addressing me directly. Her heroine, Arrietty, was a writer, like me; the first human she met was a dreamy, lonely Boy, and the old country house in which they lived seemed to resemble that of my grandparents. In Arrietty’s father, Pod, a strong, silent type with a gift for engineering, I could see elements of my father (though in her mother, Homily, house-proud and nervous, I didn’t see much of my own). Arrietty’s adventures not only captured but also stimulated my imagination, and stories about her were among the first I ever wrote.

This may help to explain why previous screen adaptations of The Borrowers have failed to win my complete admiration: I take every element personally. Only one (a 1973 Hallmark Hall of Fame television production) stuck to Norton’s historical setting: the Borrowers live in late-Victorian England, a period which inspired the scale miniatures and dollhouses that still define the form.* Most successful was a 1992–93 BBC adaptation starring Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton, while a big-screen movie (1997) strayed so far from the source material that it’s best forgotten here.

All the adapters felt compelled to tinker with the plot and characterizations — albeit seldom as much as Disney did, when adapting Norton’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. (Why Norton — a sometime actress with the Old Vic who surely understood the demands of drama — needs so much help is anybody’s guess.)

The housekeeper Mrs. Driver (here called Haru) is less menacing, more comical than in the book, but she’s the movie’s villain.
Robin Williams portrays her in the English-language verison.

Now the Japanese animators, Studio Ghibli, best known for the lush, brilliantly imaginative films of Hayao Miyazaki, have turned to the story, and Arrietty the Borrower (Karigurashi no Arietti) is the result. It opened in Japan on my birthday, and is currently in wide release in France, where a Borrower is called a chapardeur. (Now you know.)

Questions of scale need not trouble animators much, and Ghibli’s artists excel in careful architectural renderings and beautifully painted backgrounds that help to ground the fantasy, much as Norton’s prose does. The studio’s productions typically center on strong heroines, and Norton’s stories have one in Arrietty, whose fascination with humans invariably leads to crisis for her family. Ghibli movies have a penchant for pretty but largely ineffectual heroes, and in the Boy (here called Sho), the Borrowers provide one of those, too.

Sho, the boy: Non-threatening crush.
Ghibli heroes tend to be good-looking but weak.

Finally, many Ghibli movies also feature anti-war and environmentalist themes, and here I might have expected the Borrowers to come up short, as it were. There’s no war and almost no violence, but in the new movie that bears her name, one character reminds Arrietty that the Borrowers are an endangered species. And so this is an auspicious matchup of story and interpreters.

That’s not to say that Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (at the helm of his first feature) didn’t make changes. The first of these is to update the story, as his predecessors did: no Borrowers in Victorian dress. When everything is set in the present, one must lose Norton’s original framing device, too: in The Borrowers, the first book in the series, we return to the house in Befordshire, where the Boy’s sister, now an old woman, tells the Borrowers’ story to her young relative, Kate; the reader experiences the adventure in flashback chapters.

Arrietty and Homily

Moving the story to Japan makes sense, to a degree — there are similarities in social conventions that boost the film, as they do the novels — though that may limit the movie’s appeal to audiences in other countries. The house and furnishings look Western, and they’re not alone: I’d always presumed that Borrowers in Asia would look Asian, but that’s not the case now. Ghibli’s Arrietty looks much like the redheaded English rose depicted in the American editions’ illustrations, by Beth and Joe Krush.

In the transplantation, we lose some of Norton’s linguistic wit: the Borrowers’ names “sound borrowed,” as she observes, but it’s probably useless to try to translate them. (You can’t imagine my surprise when I found out what a real “homily” or “arietta” was.) Ghibli’s Borrowers retain the family name, Clock, though they seem to live behind the kitchen cupboard, presumably because younger Japanese audiences don’t know what the English word “clock” means.

Pod takes Arrietty borrowing.

Pod has become something of an action star: far from the potbellied paterfamilias of the books, this dude is pumped. So much emphasis has been put on Homily’s nervousness that we lose sight of her tougher inner resources, and she becomes a largely comic figure. The friendship between Arrietty and the Boy has been romanticized — improbably, and yet perhaps necessarily, because (from what I can tell) Japanese girls require a love story in their entertainments.

These changes may not matter — apart from the fact that I believe Mary Norton got it right in the first place — but other divergences are more important. In the movie, the Clocks own quite a lot of furniture that doesn’t look as if it’s been made from cast-off objects; instead, tables and chairs and even smaller accessory items look as if they’ve come from a dollhouse, at a point in the story when the family still make what they need, out of what they can find. (Only later, in the movie as in the book, do they start raiding the dollhouse, at the Boy’s instigation.)

Class conflict: The dollhouse, focus of Homily’s bourgeois aspirations.

Norton’s Borrowers are decidedly not elves or fairies, and they possess no magical powers whatever. (It would be far easier for them to get out of scrapes if they did.) Studio Ghibli movies are usually full of magic and mysticism, but Yonebayashi manages to resist temptation — until the end, when Arrietty communicates telepathically with a housecat, for no discernible reason other than to speed up the final sequence.

Behind the wainscoting

Norton shows us much of Arrietty’s isolation through her longing to go outdoors, into the vast world that she can see only through a grate, but from the first scene, Yonebayashi portrays her running free in the garden; she’s also got insect pets. Presumably Arrietty’s affinity for nature — abundantly gratified in the later Borrower books — was part of what drew the Ghibli folks to her story, but indulging it too soon doesn’t help her character arc. (In the book, it’s significant that Arrietty and the Boy first talk outdoors, where they are free — where Arrietty has never before set foot — rather than inside the house.) She emerges onscreen as a much less developed, more conventional, and therefore less satisfactory, heroine.

Bambi might feel at home here.

And yet she’s still recognizably Arrietty. For the most part, Yonebayashi and his team stay true to the story and characters, and the artwork is lavish. You have to go back to early Disney animation to find backgrounds as richly colored and evocative. There are four more books to cover, and Arrietty the Borrower concludes with the possibility, if not the outright promise, of a sequel. Yonebashi even introduced Spiller early (and winningly), so the groundwork has been laid, and I’d be pleased to see Studio Ghibli return to this material. Indeed, as the Clock family explore earth, water, and air, the Ghibli artists might find themselves in their element.

Mary Norton published The Borrowers Aloft the year I was born, and I had finished reading the series by 1971, when she published the novella Poor Stainless, a cautionary tale about Arrietty’s cousin. In 1982, she published the last of the series, The Borrowers Avenged.

Ready for a sequel: Spiller demonstrates his prowess.

I pounced on the book as soon as it was released in the U.S., and afterward, intensely moved, I wrote Mary Norton a long fan letter — explaining what the books meant to me, how they’d inspired me to build miniatures and to write stories. I ran on and on about the characters, and pretty much begged her to write one more story.

She was an old woman by then, and though I’ve been given to understand by other children’s authors (E.L. Konigsburg, for example) that this is the kind of letter a writer loves to read, Mary Norton didn’t answer me. Maybe she never got the letter; maybe she was overwhelmed by my effusions.

And maybe you are, too. Go see a movie.

*NOTE: The Borrowers faithfully adhere to the 1/12 scale (also known as “inch-to-foot”) on which traditional dollhouses and furniture are constructed; they’d be hopelessly lost in Barbie’s Dream House. I’ve always suspected that memories of her own playtime inspired Mary Norton to write these stories. Too many practical details are too apt to be accidental, and a reader can almost picture her crafting matchbox bureaus and bottle-cap saucepans for a “family” of dolls that, under her watchful eye, will take on lives of their own.


Ruth said...

"how they’d inspired me to build miniatures" and oh what wonderful masterpieces those miniatures were!!! One could study them for hours to see the detail!!

William V. Madison said...

My Borrowers owed a great deal to your parents, Ruth! Loey used to save and pass along scraps of material, buttons, and all kinds of goodies to help my miniatures look their best. Your dad contributed a few items, too — notably including a tiny screwdriver that's still in Pod's toolkit.

And Aunt Kay gave me how-to books and a fistful of minuscule seashells she'd picked up in the Bahamas: the centerpiece of the natural history display in Arrietty's library.

One of these days I'll take pictures of the collection, to post here.

Anonymous said...

I probably read The Borrowers once or twice when I was seven or eight, but I don't remember ever reading any of the other books in the series. This is the trouble with having children that are not as crazy about books as I am because I don't get to re-visit all the childhood books that I have read!
(Believe me this is not for lack of trying but both kids have inherited their father's love of non-fiction, much to my dismay!)

I love the idea of this book being animated by Ghibli - for the attention to detail, the pacing, and the understanding of sentiment and environment.

Thanks for the tidbit on the scaling of the dollhouse - I had no idea. I do feel that The Borrowers needs to stay in the time period it was written. Think of all the items that would be so important and useful to the family during that time - items that can easily be lost and replaced - like an empty spool of thread, a matchbox, a needle, a cork, etc. These are things that are almost extinct in our modern world. After all, what would the Borrowers do with a flash drive?

Just a note - if I was a writer and got a letter from you I would be sure to write back!