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Animating the Classics

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by Lee Price
September 27, 2012 8:56 AM
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This is the first of six essays based on the list of “250 Great Animated Short Films,” recently published here at Press Play.  These six essays will celebrate the inspiration behind some of these films; a complementary series of 20 essays on my cultural history blog, 21 Essays, will focus on common themes.

The inimitable American humorist James Thurber once proposed that Walt Disney should animate Homer’s Odyssey. “(Disney’s) Odyssey can be, I am sure, a far, far greater thing than even his epic of the three little pigs,” Thurber wrote in 1934.

The list of 250 animated great short films that my friends and I recently compiled contains a number of ambitious adaptations in the vein that Thurber proposed above. They transform the world’s great literature into something new—an animated vision. Our list has works adapted from such respected literary stylists as Lewis Carroll, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, the New Testament Gospel writer Luke, James Thurber, and, yes, even Homer.

There’s no easy formula for adapting material from one medium to another. To do justice to a short story like Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” director John Huston felt he needed 129 minutes—and that was without any significant padding. Nevertheless, animation directors have accepted the challenge of flipping literature into animated short film on many occasions, turning to short stories, poems, novels, and even ancient Greek epics for inspiration. The trick is to get the tone right.

With nearly all of the literature-adapted films on our list, the style of the artwork becomes more important than the script itself in capturing the flavor of the source material. There’s the uncanny pinscreen animation used by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker in 1963 to tell Nikolai Gogol’s weird story The Nose, a black comedy nightmare about a nose that deserts its owner’s face. To adapt Ernest Hemingway’s short novel The Old Man and the Sea, Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov drew upon his mastery of the evocative paint-on-glass style. Elaborating upon Luke’s biblical story of Jesus’ nativity, Russian animator Mikhail Aldashin created charming scenes that look like old woodcuts come to life in Rozhdestvo (1997). With each of these films, the visual style adds a new layer of meaning to the original narrative.

Although James Thurber was impressed by the realistic fantasy of the Disney Studio, it was the UPA (United Productions of America) animation studio that succeeded in translating the Thurber style to film. In retrospect, this makes sense. Thurber’s witty, almost Matisse-like sketches have very little in common with Disney’s pursuit of verisimilitude. Thurber’s drawings look a lot more like the spare, minimalist UPA style, first popularized in the early Mr. Magoo films and Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951). In fact, there’s a good chance that Thurber’s work may have influenced the emerging style of UPA. Stephen Bosustow, one of the three founders of UPA, wanted to tackle a Thurber film right from the start. In 1946, before UPA had even released its first short, Bosustow announced that The Thurber Carnival (a theatrical revue of some of the most popular Thurber stories) would be a possibility for a UPA feature film. 

The Thurber Carnival proposal languished unfunded for years, during which time Thurber watched his most famous story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” get the Hollywood big-budget treatment in 1947 courtesy of producer Samuel Goldwyn and star Danny Kaye. Thurber loathed the result. “It began to be bad with the first git-gat-gittle,” Thurber was quoted as saying in Life magazine. “If they spent one tenth of the money, it would have been ten times as good.”

UPA never succeeded in raising the money to make a full-length feature of The Thurber Carnival, but they did eventually film the sly Thurber fable “The Unicorn in the Garden” in 1953. “The Unicorn in the Garden” is a short short story, first published by The New Yorker in 1939 and subsequently appearing in Thurber’s book Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940). Accompanying the story, there was a typical Thurber illustration showing a meek-looking man offering a lily to a unicorn. Like the acclaimed UPA work of a decade later, the drawing captured action and character with the barest minimum of lines.

I haven’t found any record of Thurber’s opinion of the charming movie that William T. Hurtz directed of The Unicorn in the Garden. It would be nice to think that Thurber liked it from the first git-gat-gittle—and that he realized that here was a movie ten times as good as Walter Mitty, at one tenth the cost.

Thurber didn’t live to see that he was prescient about the potential for the Homeric epic as animated short film, too. In 1995, British animator Barry Purves created Achilles, his puppet spin on the life of Homer’s champion warrior. Purves daringly centered his short film on the love between Achilles and Patroclus, presenting it as a full-throttle gay love story. The Iliad portion only covers five minutes of an 11-minute film, but Purves manages to swiftly and effectively re-imagine many of Homer’s key scenes in the short time allotted.

Thurber may have been surprised by Purves’ treatment of Homer—it sure isn’t Mickey Mouse!—but his basic point was on the mark.  Great literature can be well served by the cartoon medium. Sometimes animation can bring the classic stories to life in ways that simply aren’t available to the cinema of live action.

Here’s a list of 24 literary adaptations drawn from our list of 250 great animated short films. It covers an impressive range of moods, from Hans Christian Andersen’s poignant tales to the strong propaganda of Education for Death (1943) to the surreal horror of Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (2007).

The Little Match Girl (Arthur Davis, USA, 1937) 

Ferdinand the Bull (Dick Rickard, USA, 1938) 

Porky in Wackyland (Bob Clampett, USA, 1938) 

Education For Death (Clyde Geronimi, USA, 1943) 

The Little Soldier / Le petit soldat (Paul Grimault, France, 1947) 

The Tell-Tale Heart (Ted Parmelee, USA, 1953) 

The Unicorn in the Garden (William T. Hurtz, USA, 1953)

What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones, USA, 1957)

Le nez / The Nose (Alexander Alexeieff & Claire Parker, France, 1963)

The Hangman (Paul Julian & Les Goldman, USA, 1964) 

The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (Chuck Jones, USA, 1965)

A Christmas Carol (Richard Williams, USA, 1971) 

The Selfish Giant (Peter Sander, Canada, 1971) 

The Street (Caroline Leaf, Canada, 1976) 

The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (Caroline Leaf, Canada, 1977) 

There Will Come Soft Rains / Budet laskovyy dozhd (Nozim To'laho'jayev, USSR, 1984) 

The Man Who Planted Trees / L’homme qui plantait des arbres (Frédéric Back, Canada, 1987) 

Death and the Mother (Ruth Lingford, UK, 1988) 

The Restaurant of Many Orders / Chumon no ooi ryori-ten (Tadanari Okamoto, Japan, 1993) 

Achilles (Barry Purves, UK, 1995) 

Christmas / Rozhdestvo (Mikhail Aldashin, Russia, 1997) 

The Old Man and the Sea (Aleksandr Petrov, Russia, 1999) 

My Love / Moya lyubov (Aleksandr Petrov, Russia, 2006) 

Kafuka: Inaka isha / Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (Koji Yamamura, Japan, 2007) 

Lee Price is the Director of Development at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (Philadelphia, PA). In addition, he writes a popular fundraising column for Public Libraries, writes a tourism/history blog called "Tour America's Treasures," and recently concluded two limited-duration blogs, "June and Art" and "Preserving a Family Collection."

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