Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows - The Open Road

The Wind in the Willows - The Open Road

Part 5 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.

"As if in a dream, he found himself, somehow, seated in the driver's seat; as if in a dream, he pulled the lever and swung the car round the yard and out through the archway; and, as if in a dream, all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended. He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leaped forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him."
-from Mr. Toad
And so at last we reach Toad. To Toad, the Wide World of last week with its vague, nearly intangible longings, its abstract dreaminess, is a chimerical afterthought with which he has no patience. His Wide World is the Open Road, and it's not meant to be tramped with the open heart of a Wayfarer but raced across with the headlong enthusiasm of a reckless driver. The above energetic description of Toad's inadvertent theft is followed immediately, in droll fashion, by a magistrate passing sentence (twenty years!) on the wayward animal - after all, if Toad's world is one of tantalizing reward, it is also a world of drastic consequences. Indeed, what marks the Open Road and sets it apart from the previously explored River Bank, Wild Wood, and Wide World is its tangibility. This is not a timeless arcadia, existential terror zone, or exotic imaginary realm, but a world tied to a certain time and place - specifically, Edwardian England, a world in flux, shining pristinely like one of Toad's motorcars, yet on the verge of achieving a colossal and irreversible wreckage.

The Wind in the Willows opens with Mole; Toad barely figures in the first chapter, appearing briefly as just another eccentric River Banker, whose rowboat signifies his comfort within that venerable community. Yet Kenneth Grahame does not waste too much time introducing us to Toad's true character. Chapter 2 pays a visit to Toad Hall and right away the irrepressible bachelor is imposing his latest passion on his friends: a "canary yellow" gypsy cart with which the traverse the dusty lanes of the country. Within moments of his proper introduction, Toad is already destabilizing the comfortable universe of the River Bank - stretching its boundaries, questioning its conservative values, asserting a modern and fast-paced sensibility.

Listen to Toad waxing lyrical about his beautiful caravan: "There's real life for you, embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that's always changing!" Flux is Toad's fashion; no Venetian daydreams or Grecian pastorals for he - while Rat dreams of deep experience in faroff lands, Toad wants to burn through all vistas quickly. In his case, it's truly the journey, not the destination, that matters - and if he's not moving, he's bored. Toad is ADD avant la lettre.

Before long, Toad's beloved cart is smashed to smithereens, but he couldn't care less; he's just experienced a vision - his first automobile. It's almost too perfect to be true. Toad has met his soulmate, a sensation Grahame evokes deliciously:
"...far behind them they heard a faint warning hum; like the drone of a distant bee. Glancing back, they saw a small cloud of dust, with a dark centre of energy, advancing on them at incredible speed, while from out the dust a faint `Poop-poop!' wailed like an uneasy animal in pain. Hardly regarding it, they turned to resume their conversation, when in an instant (as it seemed) the peaceful scene was changed, and with a blast of wind and a whirl of sound that made them jump for the nearest ditch, It was on them! The `Poop-poop' rang with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment's glimpse of an interior of glittering plate-glass and rich morocco, and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance, changed back into a droning bee once more."

Toad's in love, and as is sometimes the case with passionate love affairs, the romance proves disastrous to his friendships, his reputation, and ultimately his state of mind. This sense of intoxication is portrayed quite well in Jan Needle's revisionist take on Willows, The Wild Wood. Here it's a lowly weasel getting his first taste of motormania: "I pressed a pedal here, pushed the lever forward with total confidence, pulled a handle there, pressed a knob there and threw a switch here. The truck howled in a loud and rather anguished way, rose several inches into the air, settled back on its springs and raced off ... I shot round and round, gaffer grabbed the klaxon, and we chased and terrorised everything in sight. We was transported!"

Toad begins purchasing and wrecking car after car, to the mortification of Mole, Rat, and Badger who finally decide to intervene. Intervene - an appropriate word choice, because the three animals stage nothing less than an classic intervention at Toad Hall: a confrontation with Toad in which he's told he's an addict and needs to go cold turkey (drugs being another potent metaphor for Toad's relationship to shiny motor cars). Of course, interventions are supposed to empower the addict and Badger's methods are a bit heavyhanded: Toad is locked into his room until he recovers, the narcotic of autophilia finally drained out of his bloodstream. Naturally, Toad rebels and slips out his window, wandering into the nearby town where, lo and behold, a shiny new car lies humming outside an inn. He'll just take a look, he tells himself, why not climb into the driver's seat for old times sake... "Next moment, hardly knowing how it came about, he found he had hold of the handle and was turning it. As the familiar sound broke forth, the old passion seized on Toad and completely mastered him, body and soul." Cue the "sonorous drone," "miles eaten up," and magistrate with his two decades' punishment.

And so Toad languishes in prison - a sorry fate for any animal, but especially one so besotted by the thrills of the "horizon always changing" (not to mention the life of luxury Toad has left behind). A gender-flipping charade, conceived by the gaoler's daughter, breaks Toad out of his dungeon - and so the book begins its second adventure along the Open Road, this one different in tone and flavor from the first. Whereas Toad's motoring excursions were defined by his sense of control (however irresponsible), his domination of his surroundings, and his ostentatious display of motorist paraphernalia, his fugitive days are far more humble. Disguised in the ragged get-up of a washerwoman; starved, lost, and alone; pursued by the police and badgered by a barge woman, he is now able to perceive the Open Road as a threatening, hostile environment. Grahame writes:

"He had the world all to himself, that early summer morning. The dewy woodland, as he threaded it, was solitary and still; the green fields that succeeded the trees were his own to do as he liked with; the road itself when he reached it, in that loneliness that was everywhere, seemed, like a stray dog, to be looking anxiously for company. Toad, however, was looking for something that could talk, and tell him clearly which way he ought to go. It is all very well, when you have a light heart, and a clear conscience, and money in your pocket, and nobody scouring the country for you to drag you off to prison again, to follow where the road beckons and points, not caring whither. The practical Toad cared very much indeed, and he could have kicked the road for its helpless silence when every minute was of importance to him."

Practical? Toad? Not for long! Soon, given a ride in the very car he had stolen back when all the trouble began, he can't let well enough alone. Tempted by the silent siren song of the steering wheel, he commandeers the vehicle and promptly crashes it. This will be his last car ride for the duration of the book; apparently he has learned his lesson, at least as far as four-wheeled contraptions go. But it's a lesson learned too late - while he was imprisoned, the weasels took over his ancestral home and now he has a whole new set of problems to worry about. Rat foresaw this possibility when he predicted, "Killed or ruined - it's got to be one of the two things, sooner or later." Like many a landed aristocrat in his day and age, Toad risks immolating himself on the pyre of modernity.

As noted previously, Toad's Open Road unwinds across a real landscape - that of Edwardian England. In this, the book is a bit unique; most classic children's novels take place in the author's present but usually make recourse to a fantasy land outside of history. Grahame's story unfolds against a backdrop of social upheaval and industrialization, although much of this remains subtext (the weasels evoking a restless proletariat, the "crowded" River Bank suggesting the way towns were edging in on the country). However, there is one potent and very particular symbol of the ultra-modern: the automobile. Neither trains nor factories figure in Wonderland, while Neverland is replete with pirates and fairies but nothing to suggest the London from which Wendy flies. Yet Willows makes a jarringly modern artifact a centerpiece of its storytelling - the "real world" making an uncanny appearance in its animal utopia, the twentieth century vulgarly strutting its stuff across the ideal arcadia. It's a fascinating juxtaposition.

For sheer quantity of lifestyle-altering technology, one would have to jump forward another one hundred years, to our current era of cell phones, Facebook, and laptops to find a match. Yet even in our own rapidly transforming society, the mutation occurs in inner (or rather cyber) space - the sleek subtle white earbuds or hood-ornamenting GPS's marking relatively minor eruptions into the external world. The changes of the Edwardian era on the other hand (the cars whizzing along, the roads built to accommodate them, the urbanization of the countryside) all represented definite transformations of physical space - not just a revolution in our heads, but one in the landscape to match it. The change was all the more alarming if one relished the vanishing vestiges of the past. Yet the transformation was only beginning - it took a prescient eye to see how quickly all the familiar sights would disappear. Peter Green captures this in his introduction to A Fragmented Arcadia:

"By the time Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows, his world, beneath its calm surface, was disintegrating. Quite apart from his personal tragedy of an unhappy marriage and a disabled son, his society itself was cracking. The Empire had been shown from without to be flawed, and within it the growing power of working classes and of women (particularly those of the middle and upper classes) were shaking the most stable social structures. There were rumors of war, and despite the riches of the Bank of England, Britain's power seemed to be in decline. More directly, the idyllic agrarian world was being overtaken, shattered, by the growth of suburbia and by the noise and pollution of the automobiles and railways. It was out of this profoundly changing world, and out of a man who felt himself to be displaced within it, that The Wind in the Willows emerges as a many-layered and allusive book."

Of course, if the Edwardian Age contained the seeds of the future, it also included remnants of the past. Indeed, it's the era's reputation as a crossroads between the nostalgic security of the Victorian era and the liberating freshness of the modern epoch which most defines later nostalgia for the gleaming, "extravagant" Edwardians. In their introduction to the 1954 Edwardian anthology Age of Extravagance, Mary Elisabeth Edes and Dudley Frasier note, "The Edwardian era (roughly 1900 to 1914) was a time of great advances in science and of growing political awareness, but for the most part, such things didn't occupy those who set the pace. In fact, they hardly 'showed' at all before the First World War. Security, real or imagined, was the keynote."

Osbert Lancaster, in the "Edwardian" chapter of his Homes, Sweet Homes, describes the conventional portrait of the bygone era ("electric broughams, the portraits of Laszlo and Sargent") and then further elucidates:
"In fact this glorious vision, in so far as it corresponds in any degree with reality is illumined by the after-glow of the Victorian era while the cheerful rays of the new dawn (subsequently discovered to be false) with which the majority of Edwardians considered the reign to have been ushered in, fall on a totally different collection of symbols. ... there was one trait, which found ample expression in the contemporary interior, that particularly distinguishes the Edwardians from their immediate forbears - their pathetic faith in the benefits of science."
Here, ironically by clinging to the past, Grahame was a man ahead of his time. A prescient pessimism which saw the downside of too much modernity, too much faith in the future, led him to scold Toad even as he understood the impulses which drove the restless beast ever on into the changing horizon.

The adaptations of Willows are remarkably consistent in their fidelity to Toad's adventures. They all include the initial contact with the cart, the various motor mishaps, the journey into town and the mindless theft, the courtroom travails, the escape from prison, the leap from a pursued train, the defiance of the bargelady, and the final fateful car crash. Indeed, some adaptations include nothing but these episodes (the Disney version only throws in the invasion of Toad Hall for good measure). Where the films depart from one another, and from the book, is in their final conclusions. The book ends on a strangely sanguine note, with a mellowed Toad strolling through the woods alongside friends, everyone settled into a perpetual Edwardian arcadia, in which modernity has been casually tossed aside (along with, inadvertently, the mysticism and melancholy which haunted the earlier passages of the book). The ending's serene amiability is probably representative of Grahame's wistful sensibility, but dramatically this is one area where the films arguably improve upon the source.

When streamlining the book into a Toad-centered play, A.A. Milne also threw out the somewhat moralizing ending. Before sending Toad & co. on a trot through the Wild Wood, Grahame had Badger give the restored steward of Toad Hall one last talking-to. Accordingly, a chastened Toad appears at his own victory banquet, silent and humble - a "reformed Toad." In Toad of Toad Hall, Milne resists this reformation, transforms Toad's aborted speech into a song which is performed, and ends up converting Badger, Rat, and Mole to Toad's camp rather than vice-versa (they join the chorus of singing animals after initially trying to shut Toad up).

The Disney goes Milne one better; not only is Toad unrepentant, he discovers a new mania, soaring above his scolding friends' heads in a newfangled aeroplane. Most adaptations since have followed suit and it is, admittedly, a perfect ending to the story. It allows our secret sympathy with Toad to find its appropriate outlet, while acknowledging the indomitability of his personality, and recognizing that the future keeps coming, whether or not we want it to. Finally, this conclusion allows Toad to pursue his dream of the Open Road by other means - now that the roads have become too crowded and dangerous, it's into the Open Air - no horizon moves quicker.

There is, however, one alternate ending which is a bit more in keeping with Grahame's tone, allowing for a subtle modification of Toad's need for new obsessions and demonstrating his exceptional elasticity in discovering new outlets for his megalomania. The Rankin-Bass version ends with the quartet sitting around the fireplace in Toad Hall. Until now, the adaptation has followed Grahame's lead - Toad was scolded, remained silent at the banquet, and was praised by his friends for his humility. Only now Toad begins to agree with them - yes, he is humble, more humble than any other animal; he'll mortgage Toad Hall, give everything to charity, debase himself before the world because no other toad, indeed no animal has ever been so modest as he. The friends look at each other with exasperation; only Toad could so easily flip forced humility into another excuse to boast. And so his adventure continues; you can take the Toad off the Open Road but you can't take the Open Road out of the Toad. You can, however, take the Toad out of Toad Hall, and perhaps keep him out; but that's next week's adventure...


Next: Toad Hall

In the mean time, explore the Open Road yourself with a video of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," the venerable Disneyland amusement (Florida version has closed its doors, alas...)


T.S. said...

Hey, Joel. Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment on my blog. I figured I'd respond here via a comment because your moderation is enabled and you can simply delete this once you've read it.

Yes, my care-taking duties at Screen Savour have completely fallen by the wayside. Some day in the future I may return to movie blogging, but I've been too busy lately.

It began as I was finishing my thesis during the spring 2010 semester; now it's worse with teaching a ridiculously full course load at my first college professor gig, preparing for a baby (our first), and shifting my attention to my fiction/poetry/nonfiction.

It's been weeks since I saw a movie, which is very rare. While I miss movies and thinking about them and responding to them, I've tried to shift more toward hobbies that allow me more flexibility in time: books, jazz, listening to Supreme Court arguments, cooking, etc.

The truth is that, while I'm nowhere near the world's best film critic (or even a good one), the standards I keep for my own writing are high enough that I really need time to sit down, think, craft, and revise before I hit the publish button. I should write something on my blog page to say where I've been and what I've been up to. You and Sam have asked, but I imagine others may wonder where I've gone (or is that too narcissistic?).

You can feel free to email me directly at screensavour@gmail.com if you'd like to chat about movies, life, etc. I've been following your work on this redesigned blog and over at Wonders; I was never much of a commenter when I was blogging full time, so naturally I'm less of one when I'm just reading blogs. But I'm here and watching, reading quietly in the dark, the soft glow of the screen guiding my way. It's not a film, but it's awfully close.

- T.S.

Joel Bocko said...

Hey, T.S., I hope you don't mind but I included your comment here, in case anyone sees your name on the sidebar under New Comments and clicks out of curiosity (I can delete it if you'd like). An eloquent and understandable explanation of your absence, however regrettable. But it's great to hear you're still lurking around! Hope you'll be back someday - btw, one of your favorites will be topping the Remembering the Movies this Friday, so stay tuned!

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