Backstory: Seeing (not reading) Charlotte's Web

With a 'critic' who played in E.B. White's barnyard

My grandfather, the children's book author and essayist E.B. White, once wrote:

The critic leaves at curtain fall,
To find, in starting to review it,
He scarcely saw the play at all
For watching his reaction to it.

Viewing the new Paramount Pictures movie of "Charlotte's Web" on its release day, I knew just how that critic felt. I am sometimes asked, by very young children in Maine, whether I am the granddaughter of Stuart Little. The question makes me laugh and, of course, it makes me feel very proud – and very little. I only wish a couple of those children had come with me to the movie, so I could have been watching their reactions instead of mine.

"Charlotte's Web" readers mostly want to know whether I have ever killed a spider. (Hasn't everyone?)

Occasionally, girls ask if Fern was modeled after me. She was not, but the math can be difficult. While children have no trouble believing that I'm 52, they are loath to think that Fern is now 54. My girlhood home was within biking distance of E.B. White's farm, so I visited his barnyard often, especially when there were new lambs or goslings or chicks. I gathered eggs, and helped in the gardens, and even shared the rope swing with my brothers, but I never saved a pig.

I once helped to right an injustice, by digging worms for an abandoned baby robin that my grandfather had adopted, but no spider ever wrote about it.

My grandmother had a word for people who made too much fuss about E.B. White. She'd complain that they were "jammy." Likewise, for years, when asked what he was really like, I'd say, "What was your grandfather like?"

I remember being puzzled when he gave me "Stuart Little" when I was eight, because I'd already read it. It may have been when I started high school and he gave me "The Elements of Style," signing it, "with love from Grandpa (and you can use all the needless words you want to)" that I caught my first glimmer of the writer in the family.

These days, around the time of the winter solstice, my family traditionally tucks a few fir boughs around the slate headstones of my grandparents, E.B. and Katharine S. White. This year, small plastic pigs and spiders had been left on the stones by previous visitors. The pigs are bright pink and one spider is blue, perhaps reflecting that Hollywood has visited the barnyard once again.

In a 1981 letter, recalling an earlier, cartoon version of "Charlotte's Web," E.B. White wrote, "After listening to Wilbur sing 'I Can Talk, I Can Talk,' in the Hanna-Barbera picture, I can take anything. I wanted to run on my sword but couldn't find it...."

How would White have liked this season's version, a reviewer from USA Today wanted to know?

The movie poster promised: "This Christmas, Help Is Coming From Above," and showed Wilbur the pig staring up at a moonlit web. My grandfather had always insisted that "Charlotte's Web" was not a moral tale, so the poster struck me as particularly ominous. Had they turned it into a "Miracle on 34th St." or worse? I was tempted to quote the much-used family adage about my grandfather, who was well-known for turning down social occasions. "If White could have been there today, he wouldn't have been there," I might have said.

Instead, I guessed that he would have been gracious. The movies sell books, after all, and I've just spent two years getting the "Letters of E.B. White, Revised Edition" back on bookstore shelves.

White died in 1985, almost 10 years after the earlier Letters book was published and it had since gone out of print. In the revised edition, I took the opportunity to add a sampling from the final 10 years of his letters, as well as many previously unpublished photographs. The movie has had the happy effect of helping to promote that, as well as the children's books.

Interestingly, some of the letters speak to the business of adapting "Charlotte's Web" into a picture. In a 1971 letter, White was careful to point out that his story of a pig and a spider had "no symbolism" and "no political meaning," but was "a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there...." As he pointed out, "The barn is a community of rugged individualists, everybody mildly suspicious of everybody else, including me."

Going into the movie theatre for the newly released "Charlotte's Web," I couldn't picture how an animator might turn the beautiful Julia Roberts into a spider, even though White had intended Charlotte to be "beguiling," as he had stipulated in a letter to his publisher in 1952.

Even Garth Williams, the original book illustrator, had run into trouble trying to draw a spider with a woman's face. Movie spiders are usually villains – not heroines. Paramount had a daunting task, to depict a spider that children already loved, and one who was both "a true friend and a good writer."

The scriptwriters and animators did a remarkable job. There were lots of things they got just right. The kitchen at the Arable's, for example, looks like a 1950s country kitchen, and Fern's schoolroom feels right, as well. The animals aren't in the cellar of a Maine barn, but the Australian movie set looks sufficiently plausible. The foliage scenes, filmed in Bucks County, Penn., look possible, too, or they did until Mr. Arable takes a yard rake to a corner of his field.

Fern's house, with its white clapboards and green trim, vaguely resembled a house I grew up in, on the Maine coast, and when she reads Robert McCloskey's "Make Way for Ducklings" to Wilbur in the barn, it's the perfect choice. Not only was McCloskey's book published in 1941, 11 years before "Charlotte's Web," but McCloskey lived nearby, on the coast. Why wouldn't White's fictitious barnyard animals have wanted to hear about McCloskey's fictitious city ducks? White didn't write it that way, but he might have smiled at the notion.

Similarly, Templeton's rat hole has been embroidered into a veritable Borrowers tunnel of items, to delight young viewers. E.B.White wrote, "Templeton had a habit of picking up unusual objects around the farm and storing them in his home. He saved everything."

Paramount Pictures has furnished the rathole with mirrors and yo-yos and strings and hammocks and dozens of interesting trinkets and objects, like a magpie might collect. By the time the goose's dud of an egg comes tumbling into the labyrinth, we're ready for the pinball game of cause and effect, and I found myself wanting to rewind the scene to view it again.

True, the moviemakers goofed when they made the rotten egg as liquid as it was, upon breaking, but we can forgive them for not knowing that a stinking egg isn't a wet one.

There were a few winces, but not nearly as many as I'd feared. The cows' brand of barnyard (bathroom) humor seemed unnecessary, to me, and I could have done without the tired old clichés: "What's good for the goose..." or "beating a dead horse...." The equine Robert Redford won my heart, and my laugh, and Charlotte's offspring, ballooning into the air, showed the wonder of the barnyard in a way E.B. White would have loved to see.

It was worth the wait.

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