Part 1 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations. (This post was heavily revised 11/1)
"The Willow Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank. Though it was past ten o'clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night. Mole lay stretched on the bank, still panting from the stress of the fierce day that had been cloudless from dawn to late sunset, and waited for his friend to return."
-the first lines of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
The book's legacy has been amplified by the many film and television adaptations which took up its story, often putting their own twist on the tale without straying too far from the original. Many take inspiration from Toad of Toad Hall, A.A. Milne's theatrical adaptation of Grahame's work. In order to streamline the play, Milne dropped the natural mysticism, the quiet poetry, the yearning wanderlust - or what he himself termed the book's "best parts." Milne would also enthusiastically suggest that Grahame sell the rights to Walt Disney, and sixteen years after the author's death, Wind in the Willows reached the screen through the Walt Disney Company. Following Milne, Toad - or J. Thaddeus Toad as he was redubbed - overtook all other elements of the story, resulting in a knockabout, purely comical reappropriation of the book. (The well-meaning Milne continues to haunt Grahame's legacy: in Walt Disney World, the long-running "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" was eventually replaced by a Winnie-the-Pooh attraction!)
For decades after Disney took its shot, the material lay dormant. Then the 80s and 90s saw a temporary resurgence in adaptations, with five in the period between 1987-1996 alone. There were numerous approaches: stop-motion animation (resulting in a series as well as a movie), traditional cartoons of varying quality, eventually even live-action interpretations. Actors including Bob Hoskins, Vanessa Redgrave, Jose Ferrer, Roddy McDowall, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Hugh Lurie, Michael Gambon, and Basil Rathbone lent their voice or presence to the roll call of anthropomorphic animals (a filmed-play version featuring Julee Cruise proved out of my reach). Although the Willows fever has seemingly subsided, a radically revised, big-budget CGI version will be unveiled in 2012. It promises to be both the most high-profile and least faithful adaptation yet; regardless, a resurgence of interest in Grahame's original will no doubt result.
My series has been in the works for a while (I first mentioned the idea nearly two years ago), and its roots run even deeper. I read the book when I was very young, and saw many of the film versions as a child - particularly important to me was the Rankin-Bass cartoon taped off ABC in the late 80s, when I was about 4 years old. On that same tape was a stop-motion interpretation which aired on James Earl Jones' PBS program "Long Ago and Far Away." All in all, there were eight different versions of the story which I watched or re-watched in preparation for this series. Eventually, I determined that the focus should be on the book - for one thing, the movies (mostly animated) did not vary a great deal in their interpretations of the source; for another, none really approached the quality of Grahame's work. Nonetheless, I am illustrating the posts with pictures from the various Willows movies, and will close each chapter in the series with a brief discussion of how the films interpret the theme or location in question.
The exploration of Wind in the Willows will proceed with separate entries devoted to different aspects of the story: The River Bank (basking in Grahame's evocations of nature and discovering the Piper at the Gates of Dawn), The Wild Wood (getting lost in the fearful thickets of Willows' "Great Unknown", the nightmare undertow and its possible metaphorical meanings), The Wide World (reflecting on the characters' relations to the world beyond their own comforts, as manifested by the adventurous figure of the Sea Rat), The Open Road (following Toad's adventures and looking at Edwardian England's uneasy position between old-fashioned values and the rush of modernity), Toad Hall (marvelling at Toad's luxurious quarters while exploring the implicit social conservatism of Willows' world), The Animal Kingdom (taking a light-hearted detour through the often bizarre anthropomorphic conceits and paradoxes of the book and the films), and finally Dulce Domum (savoring the poignant flavors of delayed domesticity, and reminding ourselves of the conflicted, poignant sense of "home" which remains at the elusive heart of Grahame's vision).
For the sake of convenience, the rest of this post is devoted to pictures, nicknames, and brief descriptions of each adaptation I'll be discussing. Following this is a collection of interesting links so you can keep exploring Willows on your own. To see all the posts in one place, visit the directory.
The Wind in the Willows (1949), originally released as one half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad a.k.a. "the Disney version"
Very focused on Toad, takes great liberties with the story (including an added human villain named Winkie and a wisecracking horse sidekick). Very well-animated and fun, if wildly different from the book in tone.
The Wind in the Willows (1983), also two episodes of "The Wind in the Willows" TV series (1984-88): "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers All" a.k.a. "the stop-motion version"
A much calmer, more faithful adaptation, made with painstaking stop-motion animation. A television series was spun off from the movie, and two of those episodes dealt with chapters excised from the film.
The Wind in the Willows (1987); a.k.a. "the Rankin-Bass version"
My first and favorite version of the tale, with an all-star voice cast including Roddy McDowall as Rat, Eddie Bracken as Mole, Jose Ferrer as Badger, and Charles Nelson Reilly as Toad. I've reviewed this extensively before (see links below).
The Wind in the Willows (1988); a.k.a. "the Australian version"
The Wind in the Willows (1994-96), originally released as three separate TV programs, "The Adventures of Mole", "Mole's Christmas", "The Adventures of Toad"; a.k.a. "the 3-part version"
The Wind in the Willows (1995); a.k.a. "the Vanessa Redgrave version"
Introduced by a live-action Vanessa Redgrave and produced by the creators of The Snowman, this is a lushly animated edition, probably the most beautifully rendered version of the story.
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (1996), re-titled from The Wind in the Willows; a.k.a. "the Monty Python version"
The wackiest interpretation, directed by Terry Jones and starring many cast members of "Monty Python's Flying Circus."
The Wind in the Willows (2006); a.k.a. "the Masterpiece Theatre version"
Next: The River Bank
Here are a few of my previous pieces on The Wind in the Willows: The Wind in the Willows (Rankin-Bass version) • "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" & "Wayfarers, All" • What's the connection?
And here are a couple really excellent essays from Salon, one detailing the history of the book, the other a more personal encounter (with well-deserved sideswipes at literary bastardizations): The Wind in the Willows at 100 • Abridged Too Far
I am also indebted to several sources, particularly The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia by Peter Hunt (New York, Twayne Publishers, 1994) and Whispering in the Willows, a documentary about Kenneth Grahame's life. (Years ago, I also read parts of biographies by Peter Green and Lois Kuznets.) I have also ordered a rare copy of the book The Wild Wood by Jan Needle, a fascinating bit of clever revisionism which reconceives Willows' story from the point of view of the (now explicitly working-class) weasels, stoats, and ferrets; it is to be incorporated in the entry on "Toad Hall." During my work on the series, I also discovered "Kenneth Grahame: Lost in the Wild Wood" from the Daily Telegraph.
Finally of course, there's The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I hope that, if you're interested in following this series, you'll check out a copy from your local library or yank an old edition from your bookshelf, and re-read it. If you want to see the films too, most of them are available on Netflix and many are on You Tube, including the Rankin-Bass version, the Disney version, the stop-motion version (as well as the "Piper" and "Wayfarers" episodes of the subsequent TV series), and the Monty Python version.