Gaston is a picture book written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated in beautiful naive style by Christian Robinson. The colour palette is gorgeous.
I liken Gaston to another popular contemporary picture book: Drew Daywalt’s The Day The Crayons Quit. The plots are not at all similar, but they share the same ideological problems, intending to say one thing, inadvertently saying another.
Le Week-end is a comedy, drama, romance, but not a rom-com — unlike the bulk of romantic/comedy blends this is about a couple on their 30th wedding anniversary, attempting to fall in love with each other again. The promotional material shows the characters laughing, but this is not representative of the mood, which is heavy. The humour is dark. If you’re familiar with the work of Hanif Kureishi, well, that’s who wrote it. No surprises re the darkness.
This film bears resemblances to Date Night (2010) — an unusual blend of comedy, crime and romance. This film, too, might have been ‘crime’ had the emphasis been slightly different. In order to bond, our old couple engages in petty thievery (doing a runner from a high-class restaurant) and then by maxing out their credit card on the most expensive suite in a fancy hotel. They walk out on that, too, and eventually they are forced to call on Morgan to bail them out of that mess. Judging by IMDb, neither Date Night nor Le Week-end have particularly broad appeal. This type of story must be especially hard to do.
This story is, however, a mythic journey. The journey underpins the structure. Even if the audience feels uncomfortable in the company of these characters, it is a very well structured film.
STORYWORLD OF LE WEEK-END
The setting of Paris is ironic and highlights out all the shortcomings in the characters, because if cities have their own symbolism, Paris is the city of love. If you’re failing at a romantic weekend, it’ll be all the worse if you’re failing in Paris. Micro settings within Paris itself area also symbolic, from the beige coffin of a room to the ridiculously luxurious room they choose next (a symbol of a life which is actually quite comfortable) to the graveyard they walk through to the jukebox cafe where they dance.
DESIRE IN LE WEEK-END
We first meet them on the TGV. At this point they are nameless. The camera guides us down the aisle and settles upon this couple as if we, too, are a passenger on the train looking on. We know immediately that this is an long married couple because they sit side-by-side, she with a novel (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), he looking out the window. He wants to buy a cup of tea. The wife knows this before we do — she knows that’s what he must be up to after many years of travelling together. “You’ve got the Euros,” she says, annoyed. After this many years together they have divvied up the jobs — I suspect Nick always carries the Euros.
We see that this couple is on their way from England to France for a holiday. It’s enough for them to want to ‘have a good holiday’, but far more interesting that there is another overwhelming desire: to rekindle a marriage in trouble.
If this is a comedy (and it is), we know these two will fall in love with each other again. If they left Paris separately it would be a tragedy.
PSYCHOLOGICAL NEEDS, MORAL WEAKNESSES IN LE WEEK-END
Once in France it is revealed that they have been here before when much younger and happier and in love.
Le Week-end makes us wait. First, we are shown a number of sequences and almost asked to pick sides. I suspect the audience is expected to side with the Jim Broadbent character (whose big, blue eyes and old-man vulnerability lend themselves well to audience empathy). His wife is complaining about everything. She not only complains about the room he has picked, even though he is trying to recreate a holiday they had here when younger, but storms out, seemingly happy to leave him behind. This after he tries to explain in bad French why his wife doesn’t like the room. He is doing is utmost to placate her. She leaves the building. We watch him thump on the roof of the taxi before it takes off. We watch him try to rekindle physical passion. She pushes him and he falls onto the road, hurting his knee. She tells him to grow up, to stop being a girl, to be a man. To make her seem even worse, they get a call from their son who is going through some sort of crisis. The wife has guessed that he wants to move back in with them. It seems they’re being kicked out. He has a wife and they have a three month old baby. The husband entreats his wife with, “We can’t abandon our son.”
This dynamic feels familiar — that need for a man to placate his woman, trying but failing miserably. The wife with simmering rage. I imagine many viewers will be completely put off by this woman from the outset, but older women, I predict, will know that there is a very good reason for this rage. There is a short story by Alice Munro, Away From Her, which explores a very similar dynamic. That, too, was made into a movie. The increasingly demented wife seems very cold and the husband seems very caring and sad as he transitions her into an old people’s home. Why is this? Is it just the Alzheimers? It comes out later, after we’ve seen the wife take up another relationship with another man with Alzheimer’s that this husband (also a university lecturer) has in the past had affairs with students. Finally we get some of the wife’s story. We’re not in her head — we are asked to imagine what she’s had to endure.
Naturally, Le Week-end cannot be made up entirely of passive-aggressive rage. The audience cannot spend 93 minutes with this old-married couple who seems to hate each other, especially when one is painted so pathetically and the other so callous. The writers get us through this by giving us emotional whiplash — these brutal interactions are followed by moments of genuine affection. Anyone who’s ever known a long-married couple, anyone who’s ever been a long-term couple, will understand the feeling of being fully in love with someone but not wanting to be anywhere near them.
It seems at first glance that Nick’s psychological need is that he is too much of a push-over. Too willing to please his unreasonable wife.
It seems Meg is completely unappreciative. Moral shortcoming: She needs to learn to appreciate her husband. Psychological shortcoming: She is suffering from middle-aged ‘blah’ (symbolised by the ‘beige, coffin’ of a room she refuses to stay in, and needs to find a new lease on life to remind herself she’s not dead yet.
On a couple of occasions the couple walks up hills/stairs. They contrast their panting (deliberately cut to sound sexual) against the ease at which their younger selves climbed these same steps. Steps are, of course, an obvious metaphor for life itself.
Those are the surface shortcomings, but because this film is basically a character study, their psychological shortcomings and needs are more complex than this.
DIALOGUE IN LE WEEK-END
It is interesting, given that we’ve been adequately shown, that the dialogue underscores us everything about this emotion.
“You can’t not love and hate the same person. Usually within the space of five minutes, in my experience.”
Conveniently, since there are only two speaking characters for the opening act of the film, these are self-aware characters. They are also articulate — it is revealed later that Nick Burrows is a lecturer in philosophy. He is an artist, a musician, and this sort of character can sustainably withstand this kind of reflective dialogue. Contrast with the teenaged characters of Australian aboriginal film Samson and Delilah, whose writer/director went out of his way to avoid the falsely self-aware dialogue given to fictional teenagers — teenagers who haven’t got the first clue about who they are, or how to describe what they’re feeling.
PLANS IN LE WEEK-END
Nick’s original plan to take his wife back to earlier happier times in France don’t pan out when he either fails to remember the exact location or the place isn’t as they remembered (viewed through the lens of more cynical eyes), or the renovations have rendered the place unrecognisable. A masterful thing about Kureishi’s writing is that any and all of these things could be true, and they all say something deeper about the characters.
So they throw away the holiday plans and Meg decides to let down her hair, with not a care to finances. They will stay at the most expensive hotel in Paris and drink everything out of the fridge.
Holiday plans are interspersed with talk about their larger, life goals. The graveyard setting as they stroll along, talking about the rest of their lives, is of course another ironic touch.
We learn that Meg does not want to be an HOD high school teacher anymore. She doesn’t want Nick in her life. She doesn’t want her layabout son in her house. She doesn’t want another man. She only knows what she does not want.
We learn that Nick wants things to go along as they always had, but that is no longer possible because he is being forced out of his job. He has thoughts of being an artist. Once so full of promise, he considers himself to have lead an entirely hum-drum life.
With this weekend as a microcosm of their wider life, they have no solid plans for Paris. Plans are made for them when Morgan invites them to his dinner party.
CHARACTER WEB IN LE WEEK-END
The writers needed this couple to meet some other characters. Road journeys are hard (holidays are a type of road trip, for narrative purposes). They tend to feel fragmented because the main characters go from place to place and they’re always coming up against completely new allies and opponents, and the writers is going to have to manufacture some big struggles, because the big struggles the main characters are having between themselves are going to feel real old real quick.
That’s why Morgan comes in. A chance encounter with an old friend of Nick’s — an American, to contrast against Nick’s utter Englishness. Jeff Goldblum ‘plays’ the American very well (of course, it probably helps that he is American). In contrast to the reserved main characters from Moseley, Morgan is effusive and touchy-feely and upfront. He wastes no time telling the pair he has moved on to his second wife, who he is also effusive about.
Morgan is the character Nick could have been… were Nick not Nick. Nick, too, could have left his wife. He could have moved to Paris, as indeed, he suggests whimsically to Meg at one point as she admires the view from their hotel balcony. Later in the story, Morgan not only proves to be Nick’s ‘could-have-been’ character but is also his ally, who lets Nick in on an uncomfortable truth. The audience has already deduced this about Nick — this is one of his main shortcomings — he is ridiculously comfortable in life and doesn’t know it. Meg is no better — she laughs (perhaps scornfully, but who knows?) when it is revealed that Nick is being forced to leave his position at the university due to an ill-received comment about a black student’s hair. Apart from grim acceptance of his forced retirement, there is no evidence that real reflection has taken place. It is therefore masterful on the part of the writers (and on the actor, who looks positively uncomfortable and cowed), that Morgan tells Nick how easy he’s had it. A beautiful wife, a tenured profession with a generous superannuation. (Most of that is true — all of it is partly true.) The audience knows Nick better by now — another facet of his psychological shortcoming is his comfortable white middle-class-ness. This has made him slightly anxious, inclined to talk about bathroom tiles on a romantic getaway. A more predictable script would show us that he is ‘ungrateful’, but that doesn’t describe him at all.
Morgan’s unexpected son is another character who exists for two reasons: To remind us that Nick was once young like this, enjoying ‘all kinds of music’, and as a sounding-board for Nick’s slightly drunken speech on his bed. Meg interrupts. “What was he telling you?” “To be honest I couldn’t really make sense of it.” In fact, Nick’s speech makes sense to the audience. He’s not all that drunk. If the son can’t ‘make sense of it’, that’s because he’s too young to have the first clue about love, and how love is so much harder than sex.
Here a completely off-screen character has a function: Morgan’s first wife (the son’s mother) has been so depressed she jumped out of a window. With the symbolism of the balcony, and the earlier dread that Nick has perhaps ‘left’ Meg (jumped off it?) it is clear to both Nick and to the audience that things could be much, much worse.
In parallel, Meg talks to Morgan’s young, new wife — appropriately pregnant — she is full of the joys of first love. The much older Morgan has already confided in Nick that she can’t see through him yet, though it won’t last. The starry-eyed love of the young pregnant woman who would love to spend all day every day with her husband stands in stark contrast to the worn-out exhaustion of Meg, whose husband can’t stand to be alone and is terrified that no one wants to spend time with him. (Another drip-fed psychological shortcoming.)
This way, Nick becomes an increasingly flawed character and Meg becomes more relatable.
BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN LE WEEK-END
Apart from verbal sparring there are some minor physical tousles. I’ve noticed in fiction, unless it’s meant to be heavy, it’s more acceptable for a wife to cause harm to the husband than the other way around. The reasons for this are obvious. Women tend to do less damage when they do hit — with less physical strength the threat is lesser and the mood can remain light. This film would have felt quite different had the husband pushed the wife onto the road, hurting her knee and, later, slammed her into a wall.
In myth stories, it’s not simply a ‘self’ revelation — it is a public revelation. The hero discovers that s/he is not just a regular person but also a king/superhero/great leader. This is a metaphor for a character realising s/he has to take responsibility for not just him/herself but for the community, as a leader. Sometimes these stories include a ‘cosmic’ revelation, which is where a hero gets a vision about how an entire society should act in the future: Moses on the mountain top, Jesus on the mount.
What is the ultimate big struggle — the big struggle all the others have been leading up to? I suggest it is the dinner party spectacle, in which Nick is expected to make an impromptu speech and instead ends up using a table full of eminent strangers as an audience for his turmoil. Perhaps it’s fitting that this takes place at the American’s house — this seems to be a particularly American thing to do in fiction. In Big Love we have Nicolette making a neighbourhood speech from the rooftop — there are many other examples of humiliations being all the worse for taking place in front of a crowd of people. This is one trick writers use to tell the audience, “there were arguments before, but this is the BIG one.” Until recently I felt this was an American phenomenon rather than a British one.
NEW SITUATION IN LE WEEK-END
The audience watches as Meg and Nick wait for Morgan in the coffee shop. Significantly, Meg is now wearing Nick’s hat, which she sort of stole from the porters who are clearing out their room. With Meg wearing an item of her husband’s clothing, the individuals of this couple have reunited.
This part of the story is only hinted at. A musical rom-com often ends with a dance of some kind — here we have a trio who have lost their inhibitions — partly because they are abroad and partly because they are now of an age where they can start caring less about what other people think.
No mention of the trauma of abandonment that must surely have resulted after being abandoned — twice — by your very own parents.
The truth is, Hansel and Gretel is the version that survived the best in the English speaking world. How many people know the story of Hansel and Gretel but have never heard of Hop O’ My Thumb? That certainly described me until I recently made an effort to read some of the lesser known fairytales.
Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Manzatotti
This tale is much kinder to mothers than to fathers, and far kinder to mothers than the Grimm brothers were. Here, the mothers stand up for their children while the fathers want to get rid of them. In Hansel and Gretel it is the other way around. There has been much psychoanalysis of that.
There are also elements of Tom Thumb in this tale (obviously, from the title!), though no mention in the actual story about Hop O’ My Thumb’s diminutive size. Nonetheless, almost all illustrators depict not only the titular character but also the brothers as very tiny.
I’m also reminded of Jack and the Beanstalk when the ogre arrives home to his cottage in the wood and sniffs out the children to eat.
His seven daughters are somewhat vampiric, with their pointy teeth. They have already started sucking on the blood of babies, we are told.
Hop O’ My Thumb is mute and a weakling, and his muteness is mistaken for stupidity. In my reading, this is one of the earliest fictional autistic characters. Non/late-verbal autists are often thought to be low IQ, but excel in certain things. I suspect Hop O’ My Thumb had a special interest in rocks or maps. His smarts not only saved his own life but the lives of his brothers.
Hop O’ My Thumb drops white pebbles along the path so the brothers and he can find their way back home. But his plan doesn’t work the second time after the parents deliver them further into the heart of the woods. So the plan is modified; they will knock on the door of the little cottage they come across, and ask for food and shelter.
The big struggle is not with the parents. I’ve noticed this happens a lot in stories from all eras: While Hop O’ My Thumb’s main (first?) opponents are his parents, he soon encounters a more obvious ‘baddie’ in the archetypal ogre who is almost like a metaphor for the badness of the parents. Though the parents are not ogres who cannibalise children, in a way they are. They’ve done the most terrible thing to their own children, leaving them to be eaten by wolves or die of exposure and hunger. So the big struggle happens instead at this metaphorical house in the woods, in which Hop O’ My Thumb tricks the hungover ogre into killing his own seven daughters rather than these seven abandoned sons.
When Charles Perrault wrote down the fairytales he’d collected from the wider culture, he ended each one with a summary which summed up the moral. In many cases, his take on the moral was pretty far from earlier tellings. Perrault wrote in a tongue-in-cheek manner — that much is clear. But as with any kind of humour, his basic beliefs about life and humanity shone through. Perrault was a man of his time. He joked about misogyny, but I believe he meant every word.
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOOD
When choosing a life partner, look carefully at his family.
Ladies, trust your instincts. If you think that old man next door is creepy, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Also, if your new husband treats you like a child and starts playing mind games with you, get out of there before the shit really hits the fan.
When arguing with the most important person in your life, be careful what you say. Words once uttered can affect your relationship forever.
When women are judged mainly on their looks, it’s not really all that surprising if the most beautiful daughter in a household is ostricised by her embittered female relatives. Nor is it surprising that these women, after a lifetime of discrimination, have become embittered.
It doesn’t matter if pearls and rubies fall out of your mouth; as long as you a beautiful your prince will find you. You don’t need to make any special sort of exertion; just leave home and go wandering through the woods.
HOP O’ MY THUMB
If your own parents are so nasty that they’ll take you and your siblings into the woods and leave you there to die in a time of famine, you don’t actually owe them anything after that. Make like a Scientologist and cut your ties.
If your father wants to ‘marry’ you, get the fuck out of there and everything will eventually be okay.
RICKY WITH THE TUFT
Although men need women to be beautiful (for ‘evolutionary reasons’ or whatever bullshit they feed you these days), women are not to expect their male partners to be equally good-looking. If you’re a woman, your beau can be the ugliest fucking bastard in the world, but as long as you really really love him, you’ll eventually realise, with no magic whatsoever, everything about him is hunky dory. In other words, women have to conform to the Beauty Standard, but men do not.
The history of fairy-tale selection and adaptation has given far more prominence to male beasts who are afflicted with monstrosity, and then has held up the promise of redemption through love for them: the beast himself from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, who is restored to his human shape, or ‘Riquet a la houppe’ (Ricky with the Tuft’), in one of Perrault’s stories, who teaches the giddy heroine to love him for his mind, in spite of his looks. In more recent interpretations, such as the film of The Phantom of the Opera, or Mask, and The Elephant Man (directed early in his career by the aficionado of the macabre, David Lynch), the ‘monster’ solicits sympathy in the midst of exciting distress, horror and alarm.
A crucial distinction between Renaissance grotesque and [the] Counter-Enlightenment derivative can be made in terms of the response. […] The grotesque style has undergone a change and expanded its reach. The treatment of monsters in fairytales, first fora n adult readership in the late seventeeth century, and progressively for a young audience thereafter, has contributed decisively to this shift in taste. The anti-heroes of popular stories, like the ugly suitor in Charles Perrault’s fairy tale of 1697 (Ricky With The Tuft), of the hissing Great Green Worm in marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s tale of that name, offer a vision of the monstrous redeemed by the grotesque. Fantasy beasts may ape human beings in order to mock them, but representations stage their presence in order to think with them, through them, about what it means to be human,
Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
CINDERELLA; OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER
You’re more marriageable if you’re both charming and beautiful. Even better if you’re rich, but two out of three will suffice. You may even attract a prince. But do you really want a husband who’s chosen you for your beauty, your lifelong acculturation as a compliant doormat, and your smaller than average feet?
The Foolish Wishes, recorded by Charles Perrault, is also known as The Ridiculous Wishes or The Three Ridiculous Wishes.
This exact fairytale passed me by as a kid, but there are no shortage of tales about characters who are granted three wishes by some sort of genie/supernatural being. I’d find myself thinking, “Don’t waste the last one! Just wish for more wishes!” I wonder if everyone listening to these stories thinks exactly the same thing, but I’m put in mind of my neighbour, who told me recently that when he was made to attend Sunday school as a boy, they were required to pray, but they weren’t to pray for selfish things such as ‘growing an inch taller over summer’ or ‘a bike for Christmas’. Their prayers had to be altruistic or they wouldn’t ‘work’.
I think perhaps there are some cultural parallels between the nature of religious prayer and fairytale wishing: They must be altruistic and they must come from a good place.
Content Note: After reading this story you may find you never feel the same way about black pudding again. Also, if you live in Australia, you may think of black pudding whenever you see a black snake.
Wasteful Wishing is a common trope of modern comedies. Wishing for food items is a common one. No doubt fairytales such as this one have been influential in the emergence of this trope.
Well, he realises he has been very foolish, saying things he doesn’t mean. But if he leaves his wife looking like that there will be no use them living in a castle, so he must use his remaining wish to get back to life as it was before, which compared to this doesn’t look so bad now.
“So the woodcutter stayed in his cottage and went out to saw logs every day. He did not become a king; he did not even fill his pockets with money.”
WISHES IN MODERN WESTERN CULTURE
By ‘Western’, I mean of the type found on Pinterest. On Pinterest you’ll find memes such as this:
Wishes haven’t gone out of fashion. Sometimes the advice sounds very much like something straight out of a fairytale (or inside a fortune cookie):
But one step on from the ‘make a wish’ advice is to be proactive in making plans for yourself:
But take a look into identity and left wing politics and you’ll finally see acknowledgement that, best laid plans aside, some people are more privileged and are therefore in a much better position than others to ‘follow their dreams’. You can’t follow your dreams, after all, if you’re missing teeth, face racial/sex discrimination, are in poor health and work for minimum wage in three jobs looking after your four disabled children.
These days, modern children are probably most likely to have encountered Puss In Boots in the second Shrek movie. The most resonant scene for us all is probably the bit where Puss is revealed to be a manipulative little bastard, making his eyes big and cute in order to get what he wants. I admit, it’s a real triumph of animation.
This is the bowdlerised early reader version I read as a kid.
Of the modern, bowdlerised Perrault fairytales, Puss In Boots remains relatively unchanged compared to others such as Sleeping Beauty, in which the entire second half gets cut off (for obvious reasons, when you read the original!).
Puss In Boots is your classic trickster archetype. Sometimes in fairytales the trickster(s) are minor characters. Take the tailors in The Emperor’s New Clothes as an example. They come to town, create mischief then leave. In this story the trickster is the main character.
We also have a classic underdog in the character of the ‘third son’. According to old inheritance customs, the entire family fortune would be left to the eldest son, with the implicit understanding that the eldest son would continue to run the farm/business intact but share his profits with the rest of the brothers and the women. In practice, this didn’t always happen of course, and so third sons would have often felt gipped. (I often wonder how regularly the women felt equally gipped, or if their acculturation meant their lower expectations in life allowed them to feel a little more content.)
Another important cultural difference between antiquity and now: Clothes really did make the man. They were super expensive. Even today we judge each other on our clothing, but even up until the early part of last century, people had one or two sets of clothing and had to really save up for them, much like buying a car today. Judging someone by their clothes and footwear was therefore a fairly accurate way of assessing their wealth and social standing. In fairytales, boots are what separate humankind from fairy-like creatures (which includes this talking cat.)
Charles Perrault himself was very influential in the court of Louis XIV. This was a period in which fashion was very important.
Various modern depictions of Puss In Boots share instantly recognisable commonalities, notably the thigh-high boots. This comes from influential illustrator Gustave Doré.
This particular tale is also known as The Master Cat, though modern audiences are unlikely to know the story by that name.
Puss’s master has died and he is given to the youngest son who doesn’t want him. Indeed, the son plans to eat him and sell his pelt. This bit is omitted from earlier versions, in which a sympathetic young man is not permitted to even consider eating a cat (much less a talking one, because that would be tantamount to cannibalism). In any case, Puss’s shortcoming is that he belongs to a poor family and his life is in danger. He’ll need to work his own way out of this mess.
According to Jacob Grimm, Puss shares many of the features that a household fairy would have (Teutonic Mythology).
Being a cat is also a shortcoming, because although he seems to be part human (talking) and wishes for the trappings of human luxury, he still has the body of a cat.
His first opponent is his master who plans to eat him. But Puss quickly mollifies him. Each character he meets on the road becomes an opponent who trickster Puss has to fool.
The ‘Minotaur opponent’ is the ogre, who is obviously the most fearsome, being an ogre.
Ogres were remnants of Medieval and Roman beliefs in Orcus, a deity or at times also the dark and cruel aspect of the ruler of the afterlife who was lowered to the status of a shape-changing monster. It’s interesting to note that this ancient deity could live in a palace among humans and with human servants as though he were nothing more than another noble. Even more interesting to realize is that this same deity could fall prey to the deceit of a house fairy. Such ogres and hags were, of course, common in folklore as ancient deities peppered the land, terrifying and or ruling the remnants of the people who had once worshiped them. Such beings, while clearly magically and physically superior to humans, were more susceptible to arrogance much like we might imagine a faded sports star or some other person who has long since passed their prime would be.
He makes his first win (the rabbit) using only a sack, some bran and some juicy weeds.
After that he turns to stealing, lying, cunning, threats and murder.
I do wonder if the worry of having one’s clothing stolen while swimming in the buff is a widely held fear, much like that dream where you find yourself naked in public. The trope Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen has been used so much in stories since Puss In Boots that I figure it must be.
Once again, the revelation comes via the morals dished out by Charles Perrault after the story has ended. These two morals demonstrate perfectly a double standard that exists for men and women, in those days as well as in these; young men are advised to rely on their own ingenuity rather than upon inherited wealth in order to make their way in the world whereas young women (or perhaps the men who marry them off as chattels) are advised to question wealthy young men who come their way as wealthy appearance doesn’t equal inner goodness, and the wealth may be ill-gotten.
Some scholars would argue that Puss In Boots does not count as a fairytale for lack of a clear moral within the story itself. Aside from the typical story structure as listed here, Puss In Boots has:
transformation (the ogre turning into a lion and then a mouse)
typical fairytale elements such as repeated use of the number three
Cat and ‘Marquis of Carabas’ live in luxury inside the ogre’s house.
“The cat was made a great lord and gave up hunting mice, except for pleasure.”
Some versions of the story [not Perrault’s] have the cat’s master turn out to be [an ungrateful bastard]. For example, in an Italian variation, Pippo and the Clever Cat, Pippo promises his cat that for everything she’s done for him, she’ll live like a queen and receive an elaborate funeral when she passes away. Deciding to test this, the cat plays dead. Pippo’s wife is in tears mourning the cat, but Pippo simply says to grab her by the leg and toss her out the window. The cat gets up, curses her master’s name, and leaves. In the Russian version, sets fire to the master’s home first.
Because this is a fairytale and not something to be analysed literally, the reader glosses over certain problems with the plot. If I engage my brain while reading, I end up wondering:
How did Puss know the King was going to be riding past that exact part of the river at that exact time?
Why did the King keep riding and riding along the road, encountering peasants who’d been threatened by the cat?
Does the king travel with a spare set of fancy clothes in his cart?
When the princess first sees the third son he is actually butt naked. Could it not be this that she falls in lust with, rather than his fine clothes? (Anyone else thinking of the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and the producer’s decision to have Mr Darcy get out of the lake in a fetching wet shirt?)
Wasn’t the ogre’s home modified to accommodate a very large person? If so, how did the king not notice that everything inside the castle was huge?
Why did the ogre’s friends, due for a dinner party, not overpower the king, princess and cat while they were at the castle feasting? Surely they could have. That would’ve been the perfect opportunity, in fact. Then they could’ve ruled the kingdom for themselves.
How did the king not know about this Ogre before?
Dick Whittington and His Supposed Cat
The tale of “Puss In Boots” is so beloved and so well-structured that the real life figure named Richard Whittington had this fairytale folded into the mythology of him. The real Whittington wasn’t even poor, yet somehow he became a ‘rags to riches’ hero.
Mr Chicken Goes To Paris is a carnivalesque picture book about a chicken who goes to Paris on holiday.
For a whiff of the Foreign, film makers often turn to France and especially Paris. The same is true in children’s films, from “Ratatouille” to “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” And the same is true in children’s books.
Not a high concept book — indeed, a chicken goes to Paris. For a holiday. It’s what it says on the tin. This is a third-person version of someone’s summary of a trip, of the kind it’s possible to get quite bored of, unless, of course, the holiday maker happens to be an enormous chicken. A reader’s enjoyment of this story will depend on how funny they think huge chickens are.
There is no real story to this poultry’s holiday and each page jumps to one of Paris’ famous tourist attractions.
– 3 Star Goodreads Review
I’m approximately 30 years older than the target audience, I thought this was rather adorable.
– 4 Star Goodreads Review
The main drawcard of this story is the disproportionate size of the chicken, who grows larger and larger as the story progresses. Ostensibly, this is because Monsieur Poulet eats too much delicious French food. As a side note, my only criticism of this book is that it is suggested Mr Poulet go on a diet. I’m no fan of mentions of dieting in children’s books because of the huge pressure on young people (especially on girls) to look slim. The story would have worked without that, as in Avocado Baby, an old book I remember from childhood, in which food is seen as nourishing, and can be used to bulk a picture book character up to a ridiculous extent nonetheless.
Here is Mr Chicken on a plane:
Someone pointed out on Goodreads that Mr Chicken looks more like an alien than a chicken, and I hadn’t considered until then that this is probably intended. Mr Chicken is indeed an ‘alien’ in Paris, in the foreigner sense, and this books becomes a metaphor for not fitting in because you look different. As someone who lived for a year in a tiny Japanese village where the only other white person was the French guy who owned a restaurant, I can tell you that being a significant minority really does impact the way you experience life. And everyone should ideally experience that once. If that’s not possible, there are always books.
Notice the use of colour (or lack of it) in the illustration above. Mr Chicken is conspicuous not just because of his size (and because he is a chicken) but because he suddenly feels bright yellow, emphasised by the unsaturated sepia tones all around him. You’ll notice the bystanders looking with fright and surprise at Mr Chicken, though the comedy happens when none of them do a thing. Indeed, when Mr Chicken asks someone to take his photo, the someone politely agrees, as if seeing an enormous talking chicken is an everyday event.
The interesting thing about this is that children are often required, when reading picture books, especially, to believe that talking, house-dwelling animals are a thing, or at least, a stand-in for humans. This book isn’t quite like that. The reader is required to understand that a giant talking chicken in Paris is an unusual thing, even in the fantastical world of a picture book. Indeed, unless the reader gets this joke, the book is just another talking animal story.
This is exactly why an understated text is the perfect choice. If you were to read the text without the pictures, you’d find that it’s rather boring. The contrast between The Everyday of the text and The Fantasy of the illustrations creates a pleasant irony, and allows the story to work as a comment on difference.
I know educators are always looking to link picture books in with the curriculum, and this book includes a number of French words which would be useful in a primary school or beginner high school French program. (There’s a list of the words with their meanings on the front endpapers.)
This book would be a useful cross-curricular resource if themes such as Paris, France, tourism, foreign language, etc. were on the agenda.
3 Star Goodreads Review
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
It would be easy to think that these scampy looking illustrations don’t require much in the way of skill, but I can assure you it’s as difficult to produce something sketchy and full of movement as it is to produce something more photorealistic. These illustrations are in the style of Quentin Blake or Ronald Searle.
I’d love to know how long it takes Leigh Hobbs to produce each sketch. For all I know it takes ages. The point is, it looks very fast. Line drawings are coloured with rapid-looking colour washes which do not keep within the boundaries of the lines. Like Mr Chicken himself, the colour is its own ‘rogue visitor’, out-of-place.
This sketchy, un-careful way art style is well-suited to tall tales which are humorous. I also love photorealism in tall tales — in that case we can marvel that something like that might really exist — but when the illustrations are sketchy like this, the reader is told very clearly via the pictures that this cannot possibly exist. Come on, share the joke with me.
Another advantage of this kind of art is that the people look like no one and everyone both at once. With dots for eyes and one sausage-type of nose, these people are without their own personalities — they are just people. However, the washes suggest everyone is nonetheless a white person, and I know Paris is not quite that white these days, and certainly not in the tourist spots.
The other nice thing about unfussy, sketchy styles is that young readers are given confidence to keep drawing. Most children draw confidently, but most then lose that confidence and stop drawing altogether. If your young reader is in danger of leaving behind their creative years, show them this book then sit down to sketch a few ridiculous scenes together, revelling in the joy of creating something unique, even if it’s not ‘good’.
(It’s worth mentioning at this point that Leigh Hobbs is an art teacher and that his illustrations are ‘good’. It’s the illusion of easy execution we’re working from, here.)
I think of myself as an artist first and a writer second.
Draw lots, write lots. Look at art books. Not just children’s books. You can never draw too well.
– Leigh Hobbs
STORY SPECS OF CHICKEN GOES TO PARIS
Leigh Hobbs has written/illustrated at least 20 books and is therefore one of Australia’s best-known children’s authors. The Old Tom series was turned into a TV series.
First published in 2009, paperback edition published 2011. This seems to be the most popular of the Mr Chicken books. If not, it’s the easiest to get a hold of. The book is reasonably large — always the best choice for books about humorously large subject matter. This is one aspect of print books that is not as easy to replicate in apps. Apps are better for ‘peephole’ or suspenseful stories, which culminate in a gradual revelation of surprise, perhaps by requiring the readers to scroll/tilt/press.
One of my own childhood favourites is an American book called The Biggest Sandwich Ever written by Rita G. Gelman, illustrated by Mort Gerberg. My teacher read it when I was five and then I convinced my mother to buy it for me via Lucky Book Club. Like the enormous chicken in Hobbs’ books, the enormity of the sandwich is fascinating to a young reader. I can’t explain why, but kids love incongruities and especially incongruities of scale.
For a more contemporary comparison, this time about an enormous teddy bear, see Jez Alborough:
Another book (in French) about an animal in Paris. Perhaps because Paris is known for being the city for lovers, it’s particularly incongruous and humorous to see an animal do the tourist thing there.
Back in 2011 a study was released which showed that boys were almost twice as likely to appear in children’s books as girls. The ABC (Australian) produced a radio piece on thisand interviewed a local author, who happened to be Leigh Hobbs. Leigh Hobbs says something like, “I hate this kind of crap.” Meaning, people whinging about diversity. He then went on to say that for his books, at least, the gender was even. If you listen to the piece all the way through, you’ll find the journalists did a count up of Leigh Hobbs’ books and found that his books are gender imbalanced in typical fashion.
I wonder if Leigh Hobbs has changed his mind after listening to the radio piece. I’d love to know if he has, because every time I look at this book, which my daughter really loves, I’m reminded of his radio splutter, and few things annoy me more than white men who simply won’t acknowledge that the space that white men occupy in the world is indeed disproportionate.
Mr Chicken Lands On London was released in 2014, currently available in hardback.