On Amazon Prime, et al
The Book (Grade A)
The 1973 movie (Grade A-)
The 2006 movie (Grade B+)
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Thus begins “Charlotte’s Web,” a book that makes readers cry and writers jealous.
We’ll get to the movies eventually, but first a detour into the art of writing, inspired by a spider who writes in her web.
White was a professional writer who is often cited by teachers of writing as one of the world’s masters of the craft. He received a special Pulitzer for his “body of work” a tribute to his way with small words.
White wrote three children’s books: “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and “Trumpet of the Swan.” He worked for the “Seattle Times” and, eventually, “The New Yorker.” He wrote thousands of words a week, often invisible amidst the magazine’s pages.
But he also wrote essays and lots of letters. Like C.S. Lewis, E.B. White answered letters. When a 17-year-old girl wrote to him worrying about her life, he wrote back long and sweet, encouraging her to “advance confidently.” His letters were usually handwritten, with precision and care – and love.
One of the revered books about writing, “The Elements of Style” by the late William Strunk Jr., was revised, after Strunk’s death, by E.B. White. Who else?
The first and last sentences of “Charlotte’s Web” are often cited as among the best openings and closings in all of literature. We opened with his opening – and, of course, we’ll close with his closing.
Charlotte the spider rescues Wilbur the pig with her writing! Radiant. Some Pig. Terrific. Humble. One essay that said Charlotte was one of the best PR agents of all time – with a few webbed words, she saved her client.
When a writer’s prose is flowing naturally reading is a spiritual journey. White’s printed prayers were short – and free of adjectives.
“Charlotte’s Web” is a book with a few peers, but no superiors. It’s a clinic in prose.
Read it to your kids once and they’ll demand an encore. Daily, perhaps.
I think the definitive film version of “Charlotte’s Web” is in our future, but two respectful adaptations exist. So, I rewatched both the 1973 animated version, and the 2006 live action version.
As a film, the later version is the better – more accessible visually to 21st century audiences.
But the early film, to my ears and heart, seemed truer to the words and spirit of White.
Let’s test the faithfulness.
The book begins: “Where’s poppa going with that ax?”
The 1973 version begins: “What’s poppa going to do with that ax?”
The 2006 version: “What are you doing? You aren’t going to kill it are you?”
A subtle change, and an unnecessary one.
The 2006 script weaves parallel to White, but misses the soul of the spider.
Both endings are true to the book – tweaking them would be like fingernails on the blackboard to everyone who loves EB White.
The 2006 script is slightly coarser, slightly sillier and slightly less faithful to the words. To its credit, however, it has some exceptional voices: John Cleese, Robert Redford, Oprah, Reba McEntire and Julia Roberts as Charlotte. Wow! Dakota Fanning plays live action Fern quite nicely, too.
The 1973 voices include Henry Gibson, Paul Lynde, Agnes Moorehead with Debbie Reynolds as Fern. Reynolds was a much beloved actress/singer. I fell in love with the song “Tammy” in 1957 when I was only 11.
Sadly, the decision to turn “Charlotte’s Web” into a musical didn’t improve the book. If you can’t improve on silence, shut up. I love you Debbie, but shush.
I must stop. We need more EB White. Let’s let two passages take us home.
When Wilbur discovers Charlotte is dying, they have tender talks.
“You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing...after all, what's a life anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die...By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.”
And the story ends like a poem. We’ll just listen quietly.
“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.