Peter Pan has met his match

Interview with director Jay Russell

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After reading the children's story "Tuck Everlasting," director Jay Russell had a revelation: "I told the producers, 'I don't think there's any way anyone can make this into a movie.' "

In fact, Hollywood had tried before, with a 1980 TV version that author Natalie Babbitt reportedly disowned.

The book – long on philosophy and light on the high-octane wizardry that typically propels kids' fantasies – asks what would happen if humans could live forever. It's more allegory than fairy tale.

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Or as Mr. Russell puts it, "No one levitates in this movie."

"Tuck" comes at a time when almost every beloved (and semibeloved) children's book is being mined for its cinematic potential. What Russell thinks makes "Tuck" stand out is the very thing that made him shy away from it in the first place: its philosophical bent, and the sheer difficulty of adapting its complex ideas to the screen.

"['Tuck'] doesn't talk down to children. It meets them head-on," says Russell, whose last movie, "My Dog Skip," also dealt with questions of growing old and a child's coming of age.

Love is not too strong a word to describe children's reactions to the story of a young girl, Winnie Foster, who meets a backwoods clan, the Tucks, who have stumbled into immortality. It's not as much fun as it sounds – the Tucks have essentially been frozen in amber, unable to grow or change. It's the anti-Peter Pan.

Russell says he didn't try to appease those fans by faithfully adapting the book – it would have been flat-out foolish for him to try. When you read a book you "create your own movie in your mind and have all the money and time in the world to do so." There was no way, he says, that he could compete with that.

So Winnie is now a teen, not a 10-year-old. And the setting has been moved to 1914 – a time of impending war and booming technology, similar to today. The first decision, Russell says, was especially important. "At the end of the book, the ... temptation facing her is based on some future relationship she may or may not have with Jesse Tuck. In this case, it's right in her face," making her decision whether to become immortal far more difficult.

Even after the movie was finished, Russell says people predicted that kids wouldn't sit for the contemplative tale. One of his biggest thrills during preview screenings has been eavesdropping on children arguing about Winnie's decision. "When you get to the 13- and 14-year-old girls, they're screaming at each other, 'Is she crazy?' "

There was one scene in the book that Russell knew had to remain in the movie: Angus Tuck (William Hurt) takes Winnie out in a rowboat to explain why human life includes both living and dying. "It's the most important scene in both the book and the movie," he says. When that scene includes unabashedly sincere lines like, "Don't be afraid of death.... Be afraid of the unlived life," it helps to have an Oscar-winner delivering them. Russell had three on hand: Mr. Hurt, Sissy Spacek, and Ben Kingsley.

In addition, "Tuck" features someone Russell swore he'd never cast in his films: his son. He plays the son of Miles Tuck, the movie's most haunted character. "In an odd way, I've frozen my little boy at 2 forever."

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