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March 2003
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Kathi Maio
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by Kathi Maio

Don't Drink the Water

I have always suspected that Peter Pan (play, book, Broadway musical, film, or cartoon) packs more of a punch with adults than with the kiddies. Children enjoy the thrill of flight and daring swordplay in Peter Pan, but it is the adults who can deeply feel the wisdom and melancholy of Wendy's decision to grow up and plant her responsible feet squarely and irrevocably on terra firma.

And I feel the same way about Natalie Babbitt's modern children's classic, Tuck Everlasting—a slight novel that has sold more than 1,750,000 copies since its 1975 debut. More pastoral and less adventurous than J. M. Barrie's Edwardian masterwork, Babbitt's gentle fantasy also relates the experiences of a young girl who resists the charms of a dashing lad, and the promise of a never-ending childhood.

Like Wendy, Tuck's 10 year-old heroine, Winnie Foster, also chooses to reject eternal youth and makes a conscious, active decision to live out her life as a "natural child." Adults know the sacrifice involved. But do children?

Set aside the blessed mortality-denial that most children are able to maintain until sometime in their teens. (You know, that golden belief in your own well-being that allows for the temporary terrors of nightmares and movie goblins, but doesn't convince you that skateboarding down a stair-railing towards a busy street—without a helmet—is tempting fate.) Childhood is the act of boldly moving upward and outward. For most kids, the idea of being frozen in time as a youngster is at least as horrific as meeting up with Freddy Krueger.

Children long for the perceived power and independence of adulthood. It's their parents who look back and wish, like Wendy's mother, that they could freeze their children as toddlers. And it's dissatisfied grown-ups, like the hero of ABC's short-lived fantasy series last fall, That Was Then, who yearn to relive their adolescence.

Perhaps, then, the fact that I was well into my adult years when I read Babbitt's story actually enhanced my appreciation of it. It is certainly grown-ups like librarians and teachers who introduce the novel to younger readers . . . which makes the continued popularity of a story that rather pointedly extols the inevitability (and rightness) of death a bit easier to fathom.

It is also adults who make motion pictures, of course. Which may account for the fact that two film versions of Babbitt's novel have been made in the last twenty-five years.

I doubt you've seen the first. Although it is still available on VHS in some unweeded video store and library collections. The 1981 small, independent feature was directed and co-written by Frederick King Keller, who has since become a television director, working on shows like The Pretender and 24.

Keller's Tuck most definitely shows its lack of budget. (I've read that it was made for $60,000 with limited funding coming from groups as disparate as Fisher-Price Toys and the Catholic Communications Foundation.) The on-again, off-again nature of the film's Upstate New York shoot caused major continuity problems, as the forest setting shifts from green leaves to bare branches and back to autumnal color from one scene to the next. Likewise, the cast is far from star-studded. The acting borders, in fact, on the severely amateurish. (Keller's father, Fred, Sr., even plays one of the leads.)

Still, the homey, no-frills, bucolic look and tone of the film seem oddly suited to the story. And the stolid, faintly awkward acting lends an air of naturalism to the film's metaphysical themes.

Young Margaret Chamberlain, who play's Keller's Winnie, is a wonderfully real girlchild—as gawky and gangly as all get-out, but quite lovely just the same. Tired of the constraints of her demure, Victorian childhood, she runs off into the woods of her father's property. There she meets up with good-looking teenager, Jesse Tuck. When Winnie expresses an interest in drinking from the spring at the base of an old tree, Jesse advises her against it in no uncertain terms. And when Jesse's family arrives on the scene, the Tucks panic and spirit Winnie away to their secluded cabin.

While a mysterious stranger in a yellow suit lurks in the vicinity, and Winnie's family fret back at home, Winnie camps out with her good-natured kidnappers and learns their incredible secret. After drinking from that woodland spring some 80 years back, the Tuck parents, their two sons, and their horse all stopped aging and became immortal.

For the Tucks, it is a relief to have a new young friend who knows their secret. For Jesse, the pre-pubescent Winnie even represents the possibility of a life-mate. He is interested in sharing his fountain of youth with Winnie—in a few years time, that is—and insuring himself an eternal love, caught in the first blush of womanhood.

There is, it goes without saying, something uncomfortably creepy about the "romance" of Tuck Everlasting. But that's one of the things that I admire about Keller's more faithful adaptation of the book. I think we are supposed to find Jesse's longing for true love from a very young girl quite unsettling. Heck, the guy is really 104! Pinning his amorous hopes on a slip of a schoolgirl in a white pinafore more than borders on the pedophilic.

Just as some of the tortuous experiences of Alice, on the other side of the Looking Glass, are supposed to weird us out, we should perceive the attachment of Winnie and Jesse to be, on some level, unnatural and wrong. Life is out of balance, after all, with the Tuck family. As paterfamilias, Angus, points out to Winnie, life is a "movin' circle," but he and his family are stuck, unable to complete their cycle.

The 1981 film version of Tuck Everlasting stays fairly true to Babbitt's book. It plods along, even stalls at times. But there is a rustic realism to it that somehow honors the original fable. The same cannot be said of the recent 2002 adaptation, directed by Jay Russell (My Dog Skip), from a screenplay by Jeffrey Lieber and James V. Hart.

Oh, there is no doubt which movie had the bigger budget. Released through Walt Disney Pictures, the Russell version sports gorgeous cinematography, handsome production design, way too much voice-over narration (by Elisabeth Shue) and more than a couple of Oscar winners in the cast. Papa Angus Tuck is played with mumbling amiability (and an I-can't-quite-hold-on-to-it Scottish burr) by William Hurt. His kind-hearted and capable wife, sporting an Irish brogue, by way of Virginia, is played by Sissy Spacek. And the ominous Man in the Yellow Suit is played with menacing understatement by the always impressive Ben Kingsley.

It's nice to have award-winning elders in your cast. (This one also includes Victor Garber and Amy Irving as the Foster parental units.) But the key casting for any adaptation of Tuck Everlasting has to be the role of Winnie Foster. In one sense, Russell and his associates have made a brilliant choice. Alexis Bledel—who is so adorable, every week, as the studious and articulate Rory on the WB's dramedy, The Gilmore Girls—has a fresh-faced beauty that is both innocent and intelligent, as well as timeless. But Ms. Bledel is 20 years old. And although she can effectively play a high-schooler, she is most obviously not a 10-year-old. This throws the original dynamics of the Winnie-Jesse relationship right out the window.

No accident, that. The Disney filmmakers obviously hoped to insert a John Hughes does Elvira Madigan teen romance squarely in the middle of Babbitt's fantasy. To this end, they cast Jonathan Jackson (teen heart-throb of General Hospital) as Jesse. And then they sent Jackson and Ms. Bledel out to frolic in golden meadows and sylvan pools. There's the romantic swim by a waterfall. There's the sweet frolic with a tiny fawn in the tall grass. You get the idea. And if you don't, swelling violins gushing a tender rhapsody will bang you over the head with idyllic import of it all.

Perhaps you can tell that I was less than happy with this particular bit of Disney revisionism.

Like Alice and Wendy and Oz's Dorothy before her, Winnie is meant to be a valiant young girl, sturdy of foot, true of heart, and bound for adventure. The filmmakers at Disney betray their young heroine by defining her simply as a starry-eyed teeny-bopper finding and losing her first boyfriend.

More to the point, they violate the internal logic of the original story. When Winnie, in the book and first movie adaptation, decides to bestow Jesse's vial of magic water (and, hence, eternal life) on a woodland creature, instead of keeping it for herself, it makes perfect sense. Jesse is too old for her (in more ways than one) and she is too young to be thinking about marriage. Meeting the Tucks, and helping to save them and their secret is a great adventure for Winnie. But only, we feel sure, the first of many. Between the ages of ten and seventeen, you expect young Winnie to experience a hundred different things as intensely as she does her time with the Tucks. This will probably include at least a half dozen future suitors. Jesse is destined to become simply the first teen-aged boy she ever had a crush on. He'll be a sweet memory, but not her life-partner. (This fact might be a tragedy for the lonely, outcast Jesse, but not for Winnie.)

In the Disney version, the basic plot is similar to Babbitt's, but makes less sense. Here, Winnie is the contemporary of the always-17 Jesse. The film has taken pains to set Jesse up as a perfect dreamboat—a world traveler and one hell of a kisser. What's not to love, now and forever? If a teenaged girl, like Disney's Winnie, were given the chance to run away with her beautiful boyfriend and live happily ever-after (literally), she would most likely say "Screw that circle of life crap, I'm outta here." She'd bolt down a full glass of enchanted water so fast, she'd probably choke on it. (But, luckily, since she would now be invincible, this would no longer be a problem.)

It's a waste of a perfectly good fantasy fable, but should we expect any less from the heirs of Uncle Walt?

My theory is that Tuck Everlasting (2002) betrayed its story in search of a solid target audience. The script was too boring and ponderous for children, too sappy and sentimental for most adults. And, let's face it, teen boys wouldn't be caught dead at this one, no matter how many shootings and manhunts were added. So the mouse-eared marketeers decided they needed to bank on the romantic impulses of teenaged girls.

The demographic research may be solid, but it just doesn't result in a satisfying movie.

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