Thursday, March 20, 2008

Who is Horton

Plausibility issues aside, Horton the elephant stands out as one of the truly heroic figures in children's literature. In both Horton Hatches the Egg and Horton Hears a Who, the elephant stands as a lone voice against mob judgment. In one case, he is keeping a promise (an elephant is faithful 100 percent) and in the other, he stands on evidence even though he is alone in seeing it. He is a hero of individual rights and confidence and, if even half of that message gets through to a child, these books have served us well.

It was with that in mind that we went to see Horton Hears a Who, the latest attempt to bring Dr Seuss to the movies. The other attempts had to all accounts been failures although we had only seen The Cat in the Hat. There simply wasn't enough substance for an extended story. For that reason, our expectations were low.

Horton Hears a Who is not a failure as a movie but it will not rate as anything special either. All the modern elements -- great animation, familiar voices and a few one-liner gags -- are there. And the essence of the story is the same: Horton hears the voice of a small but unseeable civilisation, Horton opts to defend said civilisation, the mob does not believe Horton and turns on him, and finally, the civilisation makes itself heard and saves itself. But within this there are distinct and important changes.

First of all, Horton is not alone in being alone. The mayor of WhoVille faces the same issue and it is Horton and the mayor who have each other, with a similar struggle, to give them strength. This diminishes somewhat Horton's individuality. Second, the mob while a mob is distinctly led by the kangaroo. That leadership is less obvious in the book and critically, the kangaroo's joey is just as biased and distrusting as everyone else. In the movie, Horton is the school-teacher and so the children, while powerless, do believe in him. From my perspective, this too diminishes Horton's individuality as the author would have intended it. Finally, in the book, the mob was just plain mean. It is quite unclear why they turned on Horton who wasn't harming anyone. They just did giving rise to a subtle message of the right to privacy. In the movie, the mob gains a rationale -- 'protecting the children from bad thoughts' -- which, while spurious, moved the issue beyond a private one and gave it a public force.

These changes both reduce the injustice faced by Horton and his small friends but also the true strength of his struggle against it. But it also shows why it is virtually impossible to take relatively short but beloved children's literature and modify it for the movies (although there are exceptions such as The Iron Giant). They will make enough money this time around to keep trying. I am going to have to be much more careful about going.