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Variable Wind in the Willows

By Jerry Griswold

The Wind in the WillowsThe Wind in the Willows
By Kenneth Grahame, Illustrated by Ernest Shephard
Aladdin, $5.99 (Paperback)

The Wind in the Willows
By Kenneth Grahame, Illustrated by Michael Hague
Henry Holt & Company, Out of print but available from dealers in new and used books

The Wind in the Willows
Directors Mark Hill and Chris Taylor
A&E Home Video. $19.95 (DVD, 79 minutes, with bonus features)

The Wind in the Willows (Audio Book)
Puffin Classics, $12.73 (Cassette)

When we love a story, we want it again in different ways. That is the feeling behind product tie-in’s, whether they be Star Wars’ figurines or stuffed dolls based on creatures in Where the Wild Things Are. The recent DVD release of the 1983 animated film based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows provides an occasion to muse on the different ways we can have a story again and again.

To begin with, there is Grahame’s tale itself and its account of Toad and his madcap adventures, the friendship between Mole and Rat, the apparently gruff but kindhearted Badger, and life along the river. Of all the books of children’s literature, Grahame’s is my favorite. It is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Among the first translations of this story into different media were illustrated editions of The Wind in the Willows; and in this, we might observe, Grahame’s high fantasy presents any artist with unusual problems–consider, for example, just the size difficulties of picturing a toad driving a car. My favorite illustrated version is by Ernest Shephard because he doesn’t get in the way of the text; in unassuming and black-and-white sketches usually in the corners of a page, Shepherd only provides hints or stage settings that lets the story unfold itself without much interference. At the opposite end is Michael Hague’s illustrated edition where, in color and larger pictures, details are fleshed out; younger children might prefer this beautiful and glossy book, but my own feeling is that some magic is subtracted by his realism and that (for both good and ill) what we are really given is Michael Hague’s version of The Wind in the Willows.

Grahame’s story has also been translated into various films, including Disney’s “Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” Now comes a new version from director Mark Hall and editor Chris Taylor. The film makes use of stop-action animation, a painstaking technique that requires minute movements of figures followed by photographs. When successful, such a film is seamlessly smooth; here, however, there is a herky-jerky quality that recalls how a tune played on a music box sounds different from a recording. Moreover, while we may have become accustomed to the trick of a moving mouth on a talking cat in an advertisement, in a television commercial our credulity is only strained for a minute; but in a film of this length, the articulating lips of Mole and Rat and Company are something of a distraction.

To be sure, any translation of Grahame’s gifted prose into a visual medium is an uphill challenge. Luxuriate, for example, in the following description by Grahame of Mole’s liberation from housework and his discovery of the aboveground world of Spring:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for [his] steep little tunnel. . . . So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. “This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!”

In the DVD, this moment becomes a few seconds of the house-weary Mole ascending his tunnel and then remarking, “Oh my, oh my,” as the camera focuses on a ladybug and a dragonfly. There are several kinds of losses here.

In his famous short story, Jorge Luis Borges tells of Pierre Menard’s publishing a completely new version of “Don Quixote”; while new and striking, Borges adds that Menard’s text is an exact word-for-word replication of Cervantes’ original text. Perhaps this suggests something about the only way a masterpiece can be successfully reincarnated. In that regard, my favorite is a Puffin Audio Book of The Wind in the Willows where Nigel Anthony, James Saxon, and June Whitfield narrate Grahame’s unabridged story.

Listening to this audiotape, like reading the book, reminds how The Wind in the Willows is meant to be heard aloud; it is a musical book in sumptuous prose. It also reminds how Grahame fashioned this book by telling stories to his beloved son Alastair. In the end, that may be the only completely satisfying translation of this story into a different medium: when a parent reads the book aloud to a child or grandchild.

About the Author
Jerry Griswold is completing his next book, tentatively titled How Children’s Books Reveal the Ways Kids Think, which is dedicated to his late son Colin.

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