“The Story Of The Kind Wolf” is a 1982 picture book by Jozef Wilkon, illustrated by Peter Nickl and translated into English by Marion Koenig. The story is now out of print and hard to find.
This is a Tawny Scrawny Lion plot, and very much of its time. This was the era of the vegetarian wild animal in picture books. Ecologists have long understood the importance of meat in the diet of a carnivore, and now understand how a single pack of wolves are vital to keeping an ecosystem in balance. But according to these Tawny-Scrawny-Lion plots, an ideal wilderness is one in which carnivorous animals become vegetarian. If this happened in reality, rabbits would ruin the landscape for everyone. Rabbits have ruined Australia, a topic covered metaphorically by Shaun Tan and John Marsden in The Rabbits.
Like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, this story definitely has a subtextual layer to it. Unlike John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, I’m not sure it’s intended? For me, this is a subtexually a Jekyll and Hyde story, in which the fox functions symbolically as the wolf’s extreme hunger.
Peter and the Wolf is a Russian fairytale for children, with musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. This fairytale is much newer than most — it dates from 1936. This makes it far newer than the Grimm tales, which all predated the Grimm Brothers themselves — and newer than the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. This one is unusual of its type, because it was written with a specific educational purpose: to introduce children to various instruments of an orchestra.
The copyright history of Peter and the Wolf makes for an interesting and frustrating read. In the middle of the 20th century, schools (and anyone else) were free to use this story and music as they saw fit — either in remixes or as it is. Then in 2012 the American Supreme Court judged that previously copyright free works could, at a later date, become copyrighted. This battle had been going on for some time, at least since 1994.
None of this affected what Angela Carter did in her short story of the same name, regardless of what year she wrote it. Titles are not subject to copyright, and Carter’s is a completely different tale about a different Peter and a different kind of wolf altogether. The title encourages readers to consider that the Sergei Prokofiev story might have been different, but that’s where the analogy ends. The Wikipedia entry for the orchestral originaloffers a good summary of Prokofiev’s plot, for anyone interested in a closer comparison.
There’s also the 2009 short film which got in before the ruling, directed by Suzie Templeton, written for screen by Marianela Maldonado. In this version, the national enemies of the Russian original have been personified by a gang of street bullies. But the brutality of the duck murder is preserved, making for a story much darker than most Pixar-raised contemporary kids are used to. It disturbs my daughter no end, especially as the murder comes right after a slapstick scene which has a child audience giggling.
STORY STRUCTURE OF PETER AND THE WOLF BY ANGELA CARTER
The clear main character of Angela Carter’s story remains Peter. She hasn’t switched the viewpoint over to the wolf, which would be another fine option for a re-visioning. She does switch our empathy, however — she does something more difficult. Carter helps us to share it between Peter and The Wolf. This is another excellent option for any re-visioning, because the message is always this: Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do.
The original Peter, being a child, has the usual child shortcomings: He is reliant upon his caregiver (the grandfather) to care for him. Angela Carter, who famously translated the Charles Perrault fairytales into English, was undoubtedly influenced by him, even though she used him as a negative example for how to depict women, in particular. Here she goes the Perrault route, and in writing this fairytale she begins a generation beforehand. In order to understand an individual, it was once thought, we must first know who their parents and grandparents were. We no longer think that, culturally. Or, if we do, we keep it on the down-low. We like to think — or to imagine — that we are not held hostage by our genetics and our ancestry. That anyone can become anyone else, so long as they work hard and be good.
Carter does actually start with the Wolf girl, which might trick you into thinking the girl is the main character. I’ve written beforethat it’s not always easy determining who the main character is in a story. I always come back to this: Who has the revelation at the end? In other words, who gets the character arc? That’s your main character. The Wolf girl is interesting, she is necessary, and big things happen to her in this story, but the revelation belongs clearly to Peter. She aids him in this. Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is technically an example of The Female Maturity Formula, and I point that out because yes, even feminist writers use it — my critique of this arc refers to the canon. Individual stories are absolved.
Peter is introduced in the fifth paragraph — quite a way down, considering this is a short story. Peter is revealed to be smart — good at deduction — but what is his shortcoming? If in doubt, look at the revelation. HIs shortcoming is that he has been taught to fear the wilderness, and anything that cannot be tamed. Carter tells us clearly:
When the eldest grandson, Peter, reached his seventh summer, he was old enough to go up the mountain with his father, as the men did every year, to let the goats feed on the young grass. There Peter sat in the new sunlight, plaiting the straw for baskets, until he saw the thing he had been taught most to fear advancing silently along the lea of an outcrop of rock.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
Fair enough, we should all be wary of wolves. Maybe. But as the story progresses, and we see Peter’s reaction to the rescue and abduction of the Wolf girl. Fear of life, and of nature in general, far outsizes reason. Guilt and fear paralyse him.
What Angela Carter does so well across all of her stories is link woman to nature. This isn’t Carter’s invention — she is drawing on a long, long history of misogyny, in which men are closer to God and women are closer to the Earth, and can never rise above. This is due to the unmistakable and harrowingly messy process of childbirth and reproductive cycles — cycles which were far more visible until the twentieth century. If women are close to earth, only men can be close to God, and only men can run the entire show. For more on that sorry history, which spans the last 3000 years at least, Marilyn French wrote a comprehensive history of misogyny in her book Beyond Power. Also a feminist, living in the same era as Marilyn French, Angela Carter critiques that same history — that women are to be considered abject because of our strong links to the Earth, and the cycle of life itself. She also makes the link between this view and organised religion, which in earlier times was inextricable from the rest of human thought.
Peter is a fairly passive character — the viewpoint character, in fact. With a character who looks on and observes events, you’ll need the strong, obvious Desire to come from someone else. In this case it’s clearly the Wolf girl, who is captured, but wants to break free from the humans. This desire is so ferocious that she creates a violent big struggle scene in the house.
Afterwards, Peter is left with a desire of his own, but this desire is far more subtle. Wolf girl’s desire is on the surface; Peter’s is under. He doesn’t know himself what he wants. He wants to assuage his generalised anxieties.
The opponent is not the Wolf girl. Even in many orchestral versions, the Wolf and the Boy are pitted against each other, presented as equals at one point. In the 2009 short film, this is most clear when wolf and boy are each dangling from different ends of the same rope, eye to eye, each reliant upon the other for escape.
But it is enough to say that Peter is his own worst enemy? This never makes for a satisfying if that’s the only thing you’re doing, but it does work if there are other big struggles raging. You’re more likely to pull it off in a short story than in a novel, which can’t sustain that level of big struggle, unless it’s something like Fight Club, in which we are presented with a clear opponent, even if that opponent is revealed to be illusory.
Peter is his own opponent because he clings to a system of rituals which aren’t going to help him break free of his fears. You could say the church itself is his opponent, though it would be more accurate to say it’s the culture. Carter says ‘he had been taught’, passively, suggesting he’s learned this response from all sides. Again, church = culture, and culture = church in a setting such as this.
Peter and Wolf girl are presented as diametric opposites — consider them different sides of the same personality, in the same way the Winnie the Pooh characters can be considered different aspects of a child’s traits and emotions. Wolf girl models one possibility — you can rage against the machine and take off to live your own life, literally in the wild, in her case. Or you can buckle down and be a good boy, doing everything expected of you and more.
Peter takes the latter route.
The boy became very pious, so much so that his family were startled and impressed.
The battle scene in which the wolves come to rescue their girl is ‘a big struggle scene’ (better to call it a ‘fight scene’), but for plot purposes it is not The Battle Scene. This is a crucial distinction, and failure to see it can really muck up a story if you’re trying to write one. Peter’s Battle is far more quiet. The Wolf girl crouches before him, uninhibited by her nakedness.
It exercised an absolute fascination upon him.
Her lips opened up as she howled so that she offered hm, without her own intention or volition, a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that seemed to open one upon another into herself, drawing him into an inner, secret place in which destination perpetually receded before him, his first, devastating, vertiginous intimation of infinity.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
The word ‘devastating’ feels like it’s almost cull-able, but it’s not. This is Peter approaching his own kind of spiritual death. ‘Fascination’ is also important. Today, to be fascinated by something is a good thing — we’ve probably achieved a pleasant ‘flow state’. But that’s not where the word comes from, and in re-visioned fairytales, it pays to consider the medieval meanings of contemporary words. In the 1590s ‘to fascinate’ meant to bewitch or enchant. The word comes from Middle French, Latin and possibly from Greek as well. In any case, you didn’t want to be ‘fascinated’ by anybody in the 1500s, and you didn’t want to be accused of it, either, lest you end up burned for witchcraft.
An understanding of church teachings are necessary before understanding this story, and I think we all know it — sex is sinful. It still is, according to the major religions, outside marriage. Even in (most, I’ll not say ‘dominant’) secular culture, sex is unacceptable outside mutual consent. There’s something icky about the one-sided viewing — this is not consent, exactly. There is a single participant — subject vs object. But Carter inverts the gender of the usual victim in such one-sided experiences. It is Peter who remains affected by it.
The piousness itself is also a near death experience, but literally:
In Lent, he fasted to the bone. On Good Friday, he lashed himself.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
If you’d like to drive your point home, make like Angela Carter and include but a psychological AND a literal near death experience, rammed home by the actual death of a few characters close to the main one. (Mother figures and male best friends are common victims.)
MISE-EN-ABYME IN STORYTELLING
Using Angela Carter’s excellent example, I’d like to look into the mise-en-abyme technique which I’ve been noticing for a while in various stories. Only a writer such as Carter would take the vulva and vaginal opening and turn that into a mise-en-abyme metaphor; others have found different analogies.
What is mise-en-abyme, exactly?
I would describe myself as the kind of person who describes himself as the kind of person who would describe himself.
In Western art history, mise-en-abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.
In graphic art, it might be a painting of a painting, which has another painting inside itself.
Stand in a dressing room lined with mirrors and watch the mise en abyme effect. Do you remember the first time you did this? Or maybe you don’t remember the first time, but still recall standing as a child between two mirrors and marvelling at the effect? Did this get you thinking about some pretty bizarre stuff, bigger than yourself? How there might be more than one of you, or how far the little versions of you might extend? Was it this that got you considering the concept of infinity, by any chance? It’s a powerful effect. It distances us from ourself. Which one are we? Are we all?
The song Green & Gold by Lianne La Havas is about that moment of being a little kid, looking in ‘the mirror whirl’ and wondering if it goes on and on forever. As an adult she looks back on her six year old self — she’s since had the revelation that ‘those eyes you gave to me’ let her see where she’s come from — her own heritage. Possible subtext: She sees she’s part of one long chain of peoples, stretching in both directions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnogG7IMj8o
When used in storytelling, mise-en-abyme is regularly linked to a ‘vertiginous’ sensation (quoting Carter directly), which in turn starts this spiral of questioning — the main character will probably see themselves as a very small part of something much larger. (Or they’ll remain blind to it, if you’re writing a tragedy. I wrote this kind of tragedy in our illustrated short story app, Midnight Feast.)
Mise-en-abyme and its link to Death
In No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner describes the macabre Medieval tradition of death art on church walls, and actual dead and decaying bodies within abbeys, as mise-en-abyme in nature. An example is The Hours of Simon Vostre, a text printed in Paris in the early sixteenth century. The text contains engraving of the danse macabre (Dance of Death) showing working women in various trades and working men. It was also customary for the spectre to wear a tatterdemalion (deliberately tattered) version of the costume of his prey and to imitate with grotesque exaggeration the victim’s usual activities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM
What’s all this for?
To show that Death is a double; each of us has our own death in the mirror. Death is oneself on the other side, beyond reach. The macabre implicates us in mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors. And by means of its use of defamiliarization, it offers the capacity for self-examination. Many of the tombs in which the deceased was shown devoured by worms were actually commissioned and carved during the subject’s lifetime: thus, Archbishop Chichele, founder of All Souls, Oxford, may have contemplated the artistic progress of his own decomposing body not he tomb in Christ Church while he was still alive. These funerary monuments are designed not to engender memory in the narrow sense, nor prayer, but to provoke the pondering of self. It leads to the Anagnorisis phase of a story.
Mise-en-abyme in the Plot Structure
The story-within-a-story is a plot structure rather than a system of imagery, but might equally result in a mise-en-abyme effect for the reader. I’ve found good examples in children’s literature.
In Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the new mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending, which describes the wrapper story itself. What if there’s another book within the book within the book?
Mise-en-abyme is sometimes used in comedy as a gag. SpongeBob and Patrick try to make money reselling chocolate bars but end up getting duped by a fish who first sells them bags for their chocolate bars, then sells them bags to carry their new bags. This is funny to us partly because the characters are stupid, but also partly because this could go on and on forever — hyperbole, in other words, without needing to go all the way. The SpongeBob example is also an example of character humour — most people can relate — we’ve all noticed that the more things we buy, the more things we need to buy for the bought things (new bookshelves for new books, a bigger garage for a new car). The purpose of this gag is the same as any other example of mise-en-abyme that I’ve seen: Its purpose is to get us to look inwards, stepping back, critiquing our own selves (and in this case, learning to laugh).
MISE EN ABYME AND PSYCHEDELICS
For reasons yet to be fully explored by science, a mise en abyme experience seems fairly common to those who take psychedelic drugs.
John Hayes, the psychotherapist, emerged [from a psychedelic experience] with “his sense of the concrete destabilised,” replaced by a conviction “that there’s a reality beneath the reality of ordinary perceptions. It informed my cosmology—that there is a world beyond this one”.
Another subject from Pollan’s book, Boothy, reminded me very much of Angela Carter’s description of the vulva:
This place in which I seem to find myself, already enormous, suddenly yawns open even further and the shapes that undulate before my eyes appear to explode with new and even more extravagant patterns. Over and over again I had the overwhelming sense of infinity being multiplied by another infinity. I joked to my wife as she drove me home that I felt as if I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God.
Michael Pollan adds:
Boothby had what sounds very much like a classic mystical experience, though he may be the first in the long line of Western mystics to enter the divine realm through that particular aperture.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
This terminology isn’t always used by storytelling experts when talking about the same thing. Some people talk in terms of ‘miniatures‘. But it is the same thing. By presenting the reader with the very large and the very small, you as writer are encouraging The Overview Effect. This will lead directly to a Anagnorisis pertinent to the story at hand. What writers need to decide: What is this character going to realise after their near death experience?
So, Angela Carter’s Peter is basically disturbed by the infinite mise-en-abyme effect of a girl’s vulva/vagina. He doubles down to prove himself a good boy, according to his culture and church. (His Plan.)
Where does this get him? Well, nowhere good. Angela Carter’s ideology regarding church conformity is foreshadowed by imagery:
[The wolves] left behind a riotous stench in the house, and white tracks of flour everywhere.Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
‘Stench’, or any kind of smell, in a story generally, refers equally to an emotional state. ‘Black sticks of dead wood’ are a pretty obvious clue that Peter has been through some kind of spiritual death. The grandmother’s bitten hand ‘festers’. Infections fester, but we also use the word to refer to inner states which we can’t shake. Then, there is a death. Not Peter’s, but his grandmother’s. Note: Peter loses a female caregiver in a direct reflection — mise-en-abyme reflection — of the Wolf girl, who lost her female wolf caregiver.
Hopefully the reader is undergoing a revelation at this point: Peter and the Wolf girl are different sides of the same wild coin. There’s a bit of wild in all of us, and it cannot be tamed. Peter’s comes next. (Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a picture book with a very similar revelation phase… and therefore ‘theme‘.)
Rivers are often associated with revelations. This has a long history in the churches, and no doubt long, long before. Water literally makes a body clean, so the link between rivers and mental cleanliness is a natural one.
At the end of his first day’s travel, he reached a river that ran from the mountain into the valley. The nights were already chilly; he lit himself a fire, prayed, ate bread and cheese his mother had packed for him and slept as well as he could. In spite of his eagerness to plunge into the white world of penance and devotion that awaited him, he was anxious and troubled for reasons he could not explain to himself.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
Sometimes revelations happen while bathing in the river — less obvious is when they come after. The river does nothing for Peter. The ‘liquid’ is described as ‘cloudy’. No, he requires the wild Wolf girl to aid him in his embrace of his baser self — she is his (extreme) model for how to live a good life. So he sees her once more — this is some years later — and again we have the whole mise-en-abyme / reflection imagery going on, because that’s not finished until the Anagnorisis phase is finished. (Writing note: If you start a strong system of imagery, take it to its conclusion. Don’t abandon it partway.)
She could never have acknowledged that the reflection beneath her in the river was that of herself. She did not know she had a face; she had never known she had a face and so her face itself was the mirror of a different kind of consciousness than ours is, just as her nakedness without innocence or display, was that of our first parents, before the Fall.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
The Wolf girl is innocent to the extreme, animalistic degree — Peter watches her and realises that he, too, is innocent. By bearing witness to the violent episode of his youth, he has done nothing wrong, and needn’t spend the rest of his life paying penance.
Carter finishes off her system of imagery with this:
For now he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. / He experienced the vertigo of freedom.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
In this particular story, the mise-en-abyme effect = a glimpse into possible freedom.
Related and interesting: Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is basically a Being-toward-death revelation, seen often in young adult stories.
And if we still haven’t got it:
The birds woke up and sang.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
Carter is, of course, satirising fairytale conventions — she uses pathetic fallacy and bombastic onomatopoeia with intent. These birds are a form of pathetic fallacy — a technique in which the environment around a character emulates their own inner state. But it works. When the character arc is a bit under the surface, a bit unusual — when your theme and ideology isn’t the expected one, it’s not a bad idea to go the super obvious, slightly satirical route. Otherwise a huge chunk of readers won’t pick anything up at all.
Angela Carter also finishes off in classic fairytale fashion, with a nudge towards the metafictive:
Then he determinedly set his face towards the town and tramped onwards, into a different story.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
As the Grimm brothers wrote, for instance, the narrator often likes to sign off by reminding the audience that this is a story, separate from the logic of real life. But the word ‘story’ is also used in contemporary English to refer to phases of real life, which is why I call it a tiny and subtle ‘nudge’. Carter does something clever with her final line:
‘If I look back again,’ he thought with a last gasp of superstitious terror, ‘I shall turn into a pillar of salt’.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
She thus avoids a big character arc, which readers have less time for: People do change after experiences, but a little at a time. Peter has entered the very initial stages of questioning certain ideas conveyed by the church, but there’s no way he’ll shuck it all off and become an actual Wolf man. He must find his own balance.
Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.
Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.
After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.
The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.
The illustrations are very much of England.
That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.
All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.
SETTING OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY
This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:
The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.
Whoosh Ice Creams
I wonder if British English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.
(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)
Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady
This is an snail under the leaf setting, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.
In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.
It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.
The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the setting. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.
There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.
While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.
Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)
Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.
Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.
Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)
There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.
Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.
In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.
All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)
It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.
In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.
Have you ever had something living in your walls or in your roof space, or cellar?
Apparently the story was inspired by his own daughter, who heard rats in the walls at night. (So do we — they’re actually mice…) Hearing rodents in the walls isn’t all that uncommon. And rodents are most active at night. It really is quite disturbing to hear two a.m. scrabbling right behind your head: You’re not quite sure they’re rodents, they’re so close to you, yet you can’t see them. And it’s not easy to do much about them, either. You have to wait for them to come out and eat the bait you’ve placed elsewhere.
A PICTUREBOOK FOR OLDER READERS
There are few picturebooks for older readers, and even fewer published today, with children encouraged to read chapter books earlier than ever before. This picture book is longer than your typical toddler-targeted picturebook and is aimed at readers who might otherwise be reading a chapter of a chapter book. Themes are commensurately dark, under the assumption that an older reader can cope, and isn’t necessarily going to wake up at midnight from nightmares.
There’s a good reason why this book is a bit longer: It’s an example of the horror genre in picture book format.
Does Gaiman’s story have anything to do with Lovecraft’s The Rats In The Walls? That is a story set almost 100 years ago in a renovated castle. This is a modern, warm house with modern technology such as computer games, and a 1950s mother figure in the kitchen making jam. What could possibly go wrong? In Lovecraft’s story he gathers a posse of experts from England who know all about medieval stuff and they find a terrifying grotto below the basement which is the scene of a horrendous ancient civilisation in which creatures (including humans) were kept in cages to be eaten by an army of rats.
While I don’t think this picturebook has all that much in common with Lovecraft’s story, there are some tropes common in horror:
The hero hears strange goings-on but no one else in the house believes them.
The strange goings-on happen in the middle of the night.
Though Lucy lives in a modern, suburban house, the long shot of the house at midnight shows us it’s perched atop a bit of a hill and now it looks like a castle. We can well imagine that this house has a vast, labyrinthine basement full of terrors.
Lucy has a beloved pig puppet whereas the narrator of The Rats In The Walls has a beloved black cat. (The pig functions as a kind of ‘Companion Cube‘ — a trope in which the character uses an inanimate object as a security blanket — being too close to an inanimate thing is a sign of madness in horror.)
There’s a grizzly scene — skeletons of unlikely creatures in Lovecraft; faux-grizzliness with wolves with jam around their mouths in Gaiman and McKean
But there are very big differences, given the target audience:
Lovecraft’s story is about descent into madness; the picture book is the active imagination of a little girl
Lovecraft’s conclusion is without hope; Wolves in the Walls is a circular story book — at the end we find out that the story will repeat itself, this time with elephants.
Lovecraft’s skeletons and chimeras are truly terrifying; the wolves in the picture book have very humanlike interests (playing video games and eating jam), and are just as scared of humans as the humans are of them.
In horror, light and dark are especially important.
Light = good.
Dark = evil.
This dichotomy is expertly exploited by the illustrator.
WOLVES AND HORROR AND CHRISTIAN SYMBOLISM
We also have wolves, which Christian thought — upon which western horror is based — has turned into villains. Wolves lead you towards the devil. Traditionally, at least. There’s a recent turnaround, now that wolves are endangered and we know more about them. Spoiler alert: Healthy wolves don’t hunt people, which ruins the entire plot of White Fang. These days you get picture books in which the wolves are the goodies, for example The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury.
Some illustrators share their styles with many others. Not so with Dave McKean, whose dark, spooky, yet patchwork style is unique. How to describe the artwork? In bulletpoints, I guess, since it’s a tall order:
Scenes are a mixture of photorealistic images (perhaps parts cropped from photos), line drawings and off-kilter textures. In other words, the pictures form a ‘chimera’,mixing reality with fiction. But which part is fiction and which is true? That’s the freaky part.
The collage effect is achieved by making no attempt to ‘line edges up’ or position textures so that they match real life perspective. A boy lying on a rug has realistic hair, an illustrated body, and the rug he lies on is a texture which doesn’t come out the other side of the boy’s body where you would expect it to.
A palette knife tool is used to suggest movement and also that a character is an inextricable part of the setting. In the picture above we see the knife applied to the girl’s hair.
Digital artists working in a more photorealistic style often make use of the multiply blend mode in order to make a many-layered illustration look cohesive. Here we have what looks like a glaze or coloured-wash. The pattern of the aforementioned rug extends right across the carpet; what makes it look like a rug is that it is a circle of different toned wash.
Photorealistic objects (or, photos) are also distorted with a palette knife, or digital equivalent. An illustrator such as Lauren Child also makes use of (stock?) photos in her illustrations to completely different effect. (Her childlike representations of Charlie and Lola look even more naive by contrast.)
The eyes of McKean’s characters look super spooky. Eyes are always important in illustrations of people and animals. Although dots for eyes are very common in picturebooks, when dots are used for eyes on more realistic (generic tending towards naturalistic) looking characters with that photorealistic hair and those contoured faces, we are reminded of the button-eyes of Coraline, or of dead birds we found on the ground as children, since the eyes are first to rot.
While the human characters and scenery are drawn in semi-naturalistic style, the wolves look like drawings of yesteryear, with black, sketchy outlines only. The humans are a part of the child reader’s world whereas these wolves are creatures from an ancient folklore. We are encouraged to forget the fact that wolves would never be found inside a house.
The crumpled paper background and dirty texture overlays lets us know that this is a story from an earlier time and the crumpledness equals some sort of frantic gesture.
When colour is added, it’s not necessarily in sync with the ink outlines. For example, a wolf rendered in outlines has a yellow splodge of paint in the eye area, and a square of semi-transparent green overlaid on its body. The wolf is neither square nor green; why this artistic choice? The wolves are coming out of the walls in the same way the colour is coming out of its rightful place. Worlds are blurring together.
Here’s an interesting project, completed by someone at Deviant Art: re-creating a double-spread of a picturebook in black and white only (values). Doing this would no doubt leave you with a good sense of page layout, and I guess that was the aim of the task:
Font Choice and Placement
The placement of the text suggests terror and unease, askew on the page. There is also a variety of fonts. The font on the front cover looks like the scrawl of one crazed individual, perhaps one possessed by werewolves. Dialogue is rendered in a typewriter, serif style. It all works well together. Note that both of the interior fonts are quite different. It’s no good picking two that are basically the same.
This is by the by…
But on the front cover we see the creators credited very specifically: Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Dave McKean. If you are an illustrator (especially) you’re probably aware of the unfortunate tendency to credit the writers of picturebooks but not the illustrators, who bring as much (if not more) to a story than the writer. Some picturebook creators do not like the word ‘author’ in relation to picturebooks, because a picturebook is ‘authored’ by both the writer and illustrator. In short, perhaps this method of crediting a picturebook’s co-creators is about to catch on? I hope so.
The Japanese anime Wolf Children is an inspiring and engaging film for miniature nature lovers. I have recommended this film to people completely forgetting that it is basically a very sad story though, so consider yourself warned!
I wonder if the author of Wolf Children was inspired by the story of Amala and Kamala, two “feral girls” from Bengal who are alleged to have been raised by wolves.
By Western standards, this film feels transgressive in parts. For example, the bedroom scene between a human and a dog (kissing). It’s one thing to read in a novel about a young woman in love with a werewolf type creature, but I note with interest that Bella Swan never once kisses Jacob while he’s in his wolf form, at least not in the film adaptations. Imagine interspecies romantic scenes getting through in Hollywood.
Likewise, there is a conspicuous absence of nipples and breastfeeding in Western children’s stories. Why on earth don’t we see nipples in every single picture book about getting a new little baby brother or sister? If you want to normalise breastfeeding for your kids and expose them to cartoon nipples that are also not pornographic, to Japan you must go.
The vast majority of stories make use of an unseen, omniscient narrator, but Yuki makes a good storyteller since she likes school (presumably making her good at words) and lives in the human world as an adult.
Wolf Children As An Allegory For Autism?
The director made this film to explore parenthood, and motherhood in particular. But this story is interesting to consider as a possible metaphor for having an invisible neurological difference such as autism. I can’t find anyone else who has come up with the same conjecture in English, but I did find someone in Japanese.
Starting with the hopes and dreams of any parent, before realising you have a little person who is different.
Feeling more attracted to the animal/natural world than to the human one, which seems impossible to navigate without the neurotypical levels of intuition
Letting go of your children to make their own decisions even though you feel they’re still too naive to navigate the world. (Though they’re adults in terms of years they may be younger psychologically, which is hard for a parent to deal with.)
The city is a metaphor for isolation. So is the country, but by surrounding ourselves with just a few people who are genuinely caring it’s no longer isolating at all.
Wolf Children, being a classic coming-of-age story, is also an allegory for growing up in general, and making the decision to be one thing or another, all the while realising that if you choose one path, the other is closing over.
Note on the plot structure: In the city Hana is isolated. The opponent/ally character web is set up only after she moves to the country. (Later than in most movies.)
Though the director says the story is about all three in this family, the main character is Hana. The focus is on her internal growth between the ages of 19 and 32, particularly her growth into motherhood. In order to work out which character is the main one, ask which changes the most, psychologically, not in circumstance. The mother goes from loner to living as part of a community, whereas the children simply grow up and become who they really are, so I make an argument for Hana as main character.
This is unusual in a story which is essentially for children/young adults.
Anagnorisis, need, desire
Hana needs to learn how to deal with isolation.
She also needs to learn how to live in nature rather than learning entirely from books, which is what served her in the city. Hana is a bookish City Mouse.
Written as ‘flower’ in Japanese, Hana is basically learning to get in touch with nature, and since flowers are a part of nature, her name suggests that this aspect is an inherent aspect of her true self.
A ‘city mouse’ in a story is most often female. This is a version of the Fish Out Of Water Story. Generally, the advice to writers is:
[I]f establishing a pre-existing norm isn’t absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in médias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.
Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story’s resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you’ll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first chapter, or even in chapter two.
Don’t tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.
But certain genres demand the establishment of a norm, e.g. The fish out of water story. (A fish has to be ‘in water’ before s/he can be out of it.)
Hana’s father is dead (as can be seen in the photo on the book shelf) and her mother isn’t mentioned — Hana is a slightly exaggerated version of an isolated person.
The Contrast Between Urban and Rural
The choice of story arenas here are linked closely to Hana’s psychological development. Ironically, when surrounded by people, Hana is completely alone. It is only by paring down the noise of crowds that she is able to ‘find her people’.
Initial Setting: Tokyo, 1980s or 1990s
Compared to other, Western fish-out-of-water stories such as Crocodile Dundee, Big and 40-year-old Virgin, Wolf Children affords Hana a significant amount of time in the city. This is not a true fish-out-of-water story — this is the story of a city girl who learns to live in the country — a backwards version, perhaps. A better fit is perhaps the trope of the Naive Newcomer. This type of story is popular in the speculative fiction genres. When Hana gets in touch with nature, the audience goes along with her since we, too, are new to the country village and would have no idea how to survive there alone.
The city — as evidenced by all the time Hana spends around books — is a place of book learning.
The university where Hana and Wolf man meet is modelled on Hitotsubashi University. This is an arts university, so naturally the students of a slightly earlier era are spending a lot of time around books.
The university is in this part of Tokyo:
A lot of the scenes in the animation can be seen in and around the area of Hitotsubashi University. This coffee shop actually exists:
This dry-cleaning store also exists:
Hana’s apartment is just big enough for one to comfortably live. At one point Hana and Wolf Man are shown dipping their kebabs into the same glass of sauce.
Wolf Man’s initial revelation (that he is a wolf) almost happens on the bridge – but he’s standing too far away from Hana and is unable to tell her in words. The location of the bridge is obviously symbolic: ‘a bridging of two species/minds’
He later dies in the canal below the very same bridge, and because we accept that this bridge is near their apartment, we don’t mind the heavy coincidence.
The seasons are super important to Japanese culture and this film includes shots that linger on scenery to show the changing of seasons and therefore the passing of time.
Subsequent Setting: The Rural Village In The Mountains
Hana takes her children to an old-style Japanese homestead, a la My Neighbour Totoro, Summer Wars and various other Japanese feature-length anime, in which this way of living induces a feeling of nostalgia in a Japanese audience, and also exists for symbolic contrast against the cramped and crowded but convenient life of most Japanese people today. This traditional Japanese sink seems to have particularly evocative associations for a Japanese audience. The same kind of sink can be seen in the old house of My Neighbour Totoro:
This type of beautiful setting is so often used in Studio Ghibli films that it is referred to as Ghibli Hills.
In most anime, especially with ones trying to deliver a message, this speaks to the nostalgia of many older directors for the traditional Japanese countryside that largely no longer exists because of urbanization. One historical western equivalent is Merry England for historical settings. Other times the pristineness is explained by alternate history, particularly the avoidance of major conflict or wars which lets people concentrate on improving themselves.
The house is very cheap to rent but the surrounding area is ‘not viable as farmland’ because “animals come down and eat all the crops and have pushed humans out. In most places it’s the other way around.”
Psychological Shortcoming: Hana is lonely. In my adult, slightly world-weary view of this relationship, Hana puts up with Wolf man’s shit, smiling stupidly when he turns up late, chasing after him even though he brushes her off rudely. Though it’s now an overused phrase, she really is a bit of a pixie dream girl (without the mania, so much). But this is not the intended reading, I’m sure. Hana is the perfect Japanese girlfriend. She turns into an apron-wearing housewifely figure even before she’s pregnant. (Hey, maybe she shouldn’t have worn that apron…)
Hana’s shortcoming is that she isn’t in touch with her wild side.
She needs to find her place in the world where she can thrive.
Hana notices a good-looking young man in her lecture. She’s instantly fascinated by him.
Wolf Man is gruff and his body language suggests he doesn’t want to be bothered. This is the All Girls Want Bad Boys trope in action.
In the country, the generic middle-aged neighbour is Hana’s friend but because she’s a regular woman and Hana doesn’t trust her, she is also someone Hana needs to hide her children from. This woman stands for a lot of the people Hana would meet in that environment — very friendly but possibly too sheltered to welcome diversity into the area.
In a minor way: the two old men who do try to help Hana end up bickering among themselves and offer conflicting advice which is no real use to Hana at all. They stand in contrast to the contrasty old man who is nevertheless useful: “Not all useful advice comes coated in sugar.” (That’s not an actual idiom, but I’m sure there’d be something similar in the history of East Asian thought.)
Attack by ally
Constant jibes from the old man about Hana’s lack of gardening ability.
Changed desire and motive
Hana just wanted to study before but now she wants to know who this fascinating man is.
First revelation and decision
“Hana. Look at me. Tell me what you see.” Fascinating guy turns into a wolf.
To live as a human couple in the city. Wolf Man will buckle down as a human and get a job as a delivery truck driver. Hana will wear an apron and prepare meals.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
Presumably due to Wolf man’s irrepressible wild side, she becomes pregnant.
Now they will bring up a child while hunkering down. Their plan to couple and nest is basically solidified by the news of pregnancy.
Wolf man dies in the canal. How can Hana live as a single parent in an expensive city, with two wolf children? All he had in his wallet was 2000 yen (about 30 dollars.) He’s actually left a bit more than that, but we get the idea it’s not much.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
Hana will stay in the apartment but live a secret live, concealing her children’s true identity from everyone.
Second revelation and decision
When neighbours send the child protection authorities to the house Hana realizes Tokyo is no place for wolf children. So she decides to move to the country, despite having no money and no job prospects there. Hana wants her children to have the choice between being children and being wolves.
Third revelation and decision
Rather than learning all about gardening and wolves from books, Hana decides to ditch the books. She diligently and humbly takes advice from the crotchety old man neighbour. When Yuki is upset that all the wolves in books are baddies and end up dead, she further shies away from book knowledge. From now on she’ll learn from the natural world itself. (A common response to adversity in Japanese stories is that in order to grow and get out of trouble, the character just has to be humble and work hard. Spirited Away is another example well known in the West.)
Much later, the audience realizes when Souhei and Yuki are stuck at school debating how they’re going to survive if nobody ever comes to pick them up that this is a replay of Hana and Wolf Man when they were living in Tokyo, trying to work out how to survive alone. Someone comes to check the building is empty: “Hey, what were we hiding for?”
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
The first visit to death is symbolised by the play in the snow in which they all end up as snow angels, looking up at the sky. After this, Ame is catching a bird and almost drowns in the freezing cold river. This creates a juxtaposition between extreme joy and extreme fear.
There are three big struggle scenes in this epic. The big struggle between brother and sister is foreshadowed by the big struggle at school in which Yuki bites the new boy’s ear. Next we have man against nature, which is what all the big struggles have been about all along.
Some years later, as adolescent hormones course through her body, Yuki loses her temper at school and bites a new boy. He’s not being mean when he asks if she has a dog at home but she perceives it as being mean, since he says she smells like one.
Next is a literal big struggle scene, rolling around on the floor, noisy big struggle between brother and sister after they make different decisions about going to school (and not). This is an outworking of the psychological turmoil each is having on the inside.
The third big struggle is the one between Ame and nature. The rain storm that closes the school. Ame takes off into the mountains to look after his secret animal business. Meanwhile, Yuki waits in school for her mother to pick her up, while Hana’s off looking for her son. She comes face to face with a bear and is terrified. (The Bears Are Bad News trope.) But then two bear cubs turn up and she sees the ‘humanity’ in the fearsome wild animals. She falls down a cut bank and is knocked out briefly.
Yuki takes the human course, though she’s not happy about it and wishes her brother would do the same. But the more introverted Ame has met a fox who he uses as his animal mentor and has fallen in love with the beautiful scenery of the mountains, so decides to live out the rest of his life as a wolf. He answers a ‘call of the wild’ to be the guardian of the mountains. (A classic call-to-adventure, which we don’t actually see all that much of in modern stories — usually, shit happens, characters respond reluctantly and end up growing psychologically.)
It’s safe to say this post contains spoilers about The Hunger Games.
Plenty has been said about The Hunger Games and I doubt I can add another single thing, but I have been collecting links on this for ages as they raced through my feed, refusing to read them until I’d seen the movie and read the book.
Love the books, liked the movie, don’t think the film would have nearly as much value for those who hadn’t read the books. – The Beheld
It seems to make a difference whether you watch the film first or read the book first. I fit into neither category because I watched the film as I was partway through the book. I’d already seen trailers and screenshots of the film, which would have informed my vision of District 12 and the world of the story, but I can empathise with those who say that the film did not live up to the expectations of the world they’d built inside their heads. It’s true: a film set, no matter how lavish, can never live up to a good imagination.
If I noticed one area in which the film fell down, it was in the dialogue. Dialogue could have so easily been taken straight out of the book, but it hadn’t been. (Noticeable mainly because my viewing and reading of this story happened simultaneously — probably not noticeable otherwise unless you’re a megafan.)
For instance, there’s a scene in the film where Haymitch Abernathy says to Katniss, ‘Nice dress, sweetheart.’ He then turns to Effie Trinkett, who is about to get into an elevator with them (I think), and Haymitch adds, nastily, ‘Not yours.’
I remember this scene because the rest of the audience in the theatre laughed, and I don’t find that kind of humour funny. I mean the kind of humour in which one woman is complimented on her looks while at the same time another woman is dished out a backhanded compliment. You’ve probably seen this meme: When Did This Become Hotter Than This? I hate that meme, because in its attempt to embrace a healthier body image for women, all it does is try and shift our views about ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ body types. Women are still being judged primarily on their looks. This is why we should remain a little skeptical when evaluating The Hunger Games (the movie, especially) as some sort of feminist triumph. Is it really? (See below.)
While Effie Trinket is not a character to empathise with, she does exhibit a lot of the virtues which are expected of women in her position: enthusiasm, an outward appearance of politeness and a level of personal grooming which makes her look almost scary (AKA ‘Emotional Labor’). On the scale of disagreeable characters in The Hunger Games cast, Effie Trinket is one of the more harmless.
In general, movie adaptations of books are more open to cliche, whether it be at a story level or at a dialogue level. Perhaps cliches don’t stand out as much when they come in movie form, whereas on a page they never fail to clock us in the head.
One example, true of many book to film adaptations, is that the romantic element is played up in The Hunger Games movie. That’s an example of a storyline cliche.
As for dialogue, when Rue is fatally speared in the movie, I remember Katniss crouching over her. She says something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I remember thinking, although I’d not reached that part in the novel, ‘No, she’s really not. You probably shouldn’t say that.’
Then I got to that same scene in the book:
One look at the wound and I know it’s far beyond my capacity to heal… There’s no point in comforting words, in telling her she’ll be all right. She’s no fool.
I much prefer the honesty of the book scene. Why did they change it for the movie when there was really no need to? I wonder if the dialogue in the film was influenced by the track which plays at Rue’s death, the one by Taylor Swift in which the lyrics go, ‘Just close your eyes / The sun is going down / You’ll be alright / No one can hurt you now’.
Anna Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) has intelligent things to say about the differences between the book and the film in this video, and I find particularly interesting the reaction of the audience inside the theatre where she saw this movie. That, I suppose, is the main benefit of seeing a film with an audience. At home, you don’t get to see other people’s reactions. I also find it disturbing what people find (and don’t) find funny.
I find myself irked more and more by the term ‘tomboy’. I always have, even as a kid when I was one.
First, a tomboy is a girl, so why a portmanteau including not only the word ‘boy’, but ‘Tom’ – a boy’s name? Nothing in the word ‘tomboy’ suggests we’re actually describing a girl.
Second, the fact that the concept even exists makes salient the fact that a ‘real’ girl has to be a certain way, not that girls come in all flavours and have a wide variety of interests, clothing styles and sporting aptitude. I can see why the word tomboy may have been useful back in 1900, but I’m disappointed to see it still used un-ironically in the headlines of a major newspaper.
Third, as I have noted before, it is assumed (I think wrongly) that boys will not be interested in a story about a girl unless she is an FFT (see below), so at the very least she must be a girl in a boy’s body. I don’t think this is the case for Katniss, and I don’t even like such black and white gender distinctions because I think they’re unhelpful, but it’s the assumption that continues to bother me. The proliferation (domination?) of ‘tomboys’ as a representation of ‘strong female character’ is almost a form of femme phobia.
It has been said that the gender of Katniss is pretty irrelevant. She’s an every-hero. I find it interesting, though, that she almost seems to have outrightly reject everything that could be associated with femininity. Not only looking pretty — that’s the most obvious one, and I have to admit, a welcome change — but even cooking. Nor does caring come naturally to her. She is making soup for Peeta in the woods. While master cheffing is a masculine pursuit, the day-to-day drudgery of household food preparation is feminine, and I can’t really blame Katniss for wanting to avoid it. Hence:
I’m the first to admit I’m not much of a cook. But since soup mainly involves tossing everything in a pot and waiting, it’s one of my better dishes.
But when a character is the opposite of all things feminine, I start to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to throw in a few surprises, to show that Katniss has not rejected her gender altogether, but instead embraced the best parts and thrown away others as she sees fit. Where are the heroines who have managed that?
See also: The Gender Games, and another video from Feminist Frequency in which Katniss is evaluated as a strong female character. Conclusion: while the first book stands strong, the next two books in the trilogy see Katniss fail to continue in her growth as a person, and even regress.
Here’s another analysis of Katniss as a strong woman. The proliferation of such musings (this included) tells me something. We’ve been missing this character in her non-existence!
Sociological Images always offers intelligent commentary, and in this article, argues that: “The Hunger Games should serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood that women action-hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject — instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT)”
I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. I may be holding back with a few criticisms of this film for the simple fact that the producers actually took a risk and cast a genuinely strong female character as a lead in a big budget movie. Of course, the cynic in me says it wasn’t all that much of a risk, given the phenomenon which had been created by the author of the trilogy herself.
The Mary Sue references The Hunger Games in an article entitled ‘The Long Arm of the Lore: Female Heroes In Pop Culture‘, and with Katniss Everdeen as evidence, concludes that ‘kick-ass heroines are cool again’. Were they ever really uncool, or is it simply the case that audiences have had no choice?
On this point, Skepchick quite rightly questions the so-called ‘market-drivenness’ of the ghettoisation of female action leads. It comes from Hollywood producers.
Lots of people are saying that the opening weekend of The Hunger Games were good days for women and film. Will The Hunger Games Be The First Real Female Franchise?
I can’t pretend to have made up my mind about the perceived ‘dumbing down’ of literature. That young adults today are reading less challenging works is certain. When I say ‘less challenging’, I mean the sentences are more simple at a syntactic level, the works themselves are shorter, and the plots are action dominated. I would also guess that a narrower variety of words is employed overall, but I can’t be sure about this.
What I am sure of, though, is that when it comes to the formal teaching of literature in schools, the single most important thing is that the students enjoy it, if not from the outset, then certainly by the end. I’m also sure that the literary merit of a book lies only partly in the book itself, and in large part with the way in which it is taught.
(Did you see this week that the Horrible Histories author has requested that his books not be taught in school? He surmises that if kids are made to read something, they won’t like it anymore. I’m not so sure about that. This request shows an enduring mistrust of teachers and the wonderful work so many teachers do in the classroom with regards to turning kids on to reading. As a side note, I have no idea what school inspectors have got to do with inspiring kids to read. Inspectors exist to make sure teachers and administrators are doing their jobs.)
To that end, The Hunger Games offers lots that I could immediately see as exciting and engaging in the classroom. With enthusiastic teaching, this book could lead to discussions about historical and topical issues such as war, the impact of reality TV, the distinction between public and private self (with Facebook as an example), a parable of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the list goes on.
It’s also a cautionary tale about Big Government. And undeniably a Christian allegory about the importance of finding Jesus. Or maybe a call for campaign-finance reform?
That’s not to say that I don’t have some sympathy for advocates of the slow reading movement, and the idea that some of the most life-changing books are worth the struggle.
Down here in Australia and New Zealand, many high school students have been reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The World Began as part of their English curriculum. I have taught this book myself, and I’d argue that Marsden and Collins are on a par as far as dystopian YA action fiction is concerned. Whether these novels are not challenging enough is hard to say. Certainly, for the top students, more challenging novels might allow them to write more nuanced essays and therefore get higher marks. But it would take an experienced teacher of gifted and talented students to say this for sure.
I suspect the producers believed they were already taking a big risk by making a movie with a reluctant, non-sexualised action hero, and that they were absolved any further from doing anything else for equality’s sake. That’s the cynic in me.
You’ll not be surprised to learn that there is to be a Katniss Everdeen Barbie. (I would prefer the term ‘action hero’, but there you have it. For more on that issue, see here.) As pointed out by Jezebel, the doll doesn’t really have that ‘Seam’ darkness to her. She’s white all right.
This sense that movies should feel real started in the fifties and has been slowly evolving ever since. “We used to go to the movies for fantasy, to get take us away from everyday life,” says Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne, who also wrote 80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. “The women all looked like Katharine Hepburn or Carole Lombard and the men all looked like Cary Grant or Robert Taylor.” Now, we want people to really look like the taxi driver or the waitress at the corner deli, he says. (This also means that we want our ballerinas to look anorexic and our downtrodden victims in eighteenth-century France to be near death.)
The Wolf Muttations Could Have Looked Much More Horrifying – some concept art by Ian Joyner at io9. This is probably true, but I found the wolf muttations in the movie perfectly horrifying enough, thanks. I’m just glad the directors didn’t cut to the part where the wolves ate the blond boy. Instead, we saw the look on Katniss and Peeta’s face and heard the chomping licky sounds. That’s good enough for me.
THE HUNGER GAMES = TWILIGHT?
Fortunately not. While there are some similarities, The Hunger Games is better written at a line level (ie. I didn’t want to snap all the adverbs in half and throw them across the room), the main character is not moony.
Still, there is that old love triangle thing. Or is there? Feministe argues that the relationship model in The Hunger Games is not your cliched love triangle at all.
I’m sure there are a number of costume designers who are miffed they didn’t get contracted for the costume design of The Hunger Games, because it would’ve been a great gig. A number of commentators have noted that the costume design was not good. But as a non-costume designer I enjoyed the costumes of this film. I particularly appreciated the pink eyeshadow of Effie Trinket, which made her look as if she had some sort of eye-disease, and the blue ponytail of Caesar Flickerman. The whole atmosphere of this movie reminded me very much of the second episode of Black Mirror, which is probably no good to you at all, since I’m sure more people would’ve seen The Hunger Games than the second episode of Black Mirror. But I highly recommend that series if you enjoyed the atmosphere of The Hunger Games. To be honest, that mood wasn’t what I’d been expecting.
E.L. James (author of 50 Shades Of Grey) has said that killing children for sport is just a little too upsetting for her. This sentiment was echoed by an avid reader I know – a teenage girl who lives on my street. When I asked her if she’d read The Hunger Games she said, “No, and I don’t intend to”. She, too, had heard enough about the story to know that it would upset her too much.
While I didn’t find the story upsetting, I do find the general theme upsetting. We’ve been sending our young people off to war for generations. Many countries around the world still do. There are young boys in African countries today who have been taken from their parents and trained as nothing but fighters their entire lives. So I would argue that we should be finding The Hunger Games upsetting. Watching this movie, we can at least acknowledge our own privilege.
How did America turn into Panem? Like others, I imagine war broke out as a consequence of over-populationa and global warming. I find this quite upsetting too. The Hunger Games may be an imagining of a post-climate change world.
3. Collected mentions of The Hunger Games over at Slate, subtitled ‘An Ending A Tea Partier Would Love’, which is fortunately ambiguous enough that I can’t work it out yet, not having read the next two in the trilogy.
4. Here is a description of each song in the soundtrack to the movie. I thought the standout track was the end anthem, which is unfortunate since this is the part where everyone in the theatre walks out.
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs is not only an inversion on the classic tale, but also a subversion of the message. Basically, this is a fable for a rape culture world.
Back in 1993, this book was a best seller and did well in a number of big prizes.
Most of the picture books I’ve looked at closely have been written in English, but this one started off in Greek, written by a famous Greek children’s author who is also a sociologist:
Dr Trivizas has published many books on literature, and he is one of Greece’s leading writers for children. He has produced more than a hundred books, all of them currently in print, and he has received more than twenty national and international literary prizes and awards.
The illustrations might remind you a little of the soft English countryside depicted by illustrators such as Beatrix Potter. Helen Oxenbury lives in North London and, like Trivizas, has a long list of books to her name. In 2008 she paired with our own Australian Mem Fox to create Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes. Two years later she co-created There’s Going To Be A Baby with her husband, John Burningham.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE THREE LITTLE WOLVES AND THE BIG, BAD PIGS
At first glance The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs looks easy to take a classic tale and invert the goodies and the baddies. However, nothing interesting comes of this. The author/illustrator have to be just as inventive as anyone creating a tale from scratch. What Trivizas did here was:
He not only swapped the roles of the animals, he inverted the order of the classic story. In the original, it takes the first two silly little pigs quite a while to realise they should be living in a house of bricks rather than of straw or sticks.
But Trivizas surprises us early on by having the smart little wolves build their house out of bricks. Where could the story possibly go from here?
As we find out, the ‘big bad pig wasn’t big and bad for nothing’, and as the little wolves build each successive abode more ridiculously strong than the one before (keeping to the rule of three), the big pig makes use of modern technologies (a pneumatic drill) and dynamite to ‘blow’ the house down. The detail of the pneumatic drill is great — there’s nothing going down a level of specificity to get a laugh. (We see comparatively little manual labour in children’s stories.)
What’s the moral of the story in The Three Little Pigs? There are probably several, but the one I took from the story as a child was that one should always protect oneself from bad characters. The subtext is that bad characters are essentially bad — it is in their nature. Though what I’m about to say is most definitely an adult’s reading of this text, I’m very much reminded of the message that girls, in particular, get as soon as we start to ‘go out into the world’ ourselves: You must protect yourself from bad men. And if you don’t, well that’s your own fault really, isn’t it. Earlier versions of fairytales, including The Three Little Pigs, were influenced by The Harlot’s Progress plot. (Though the pigs are gendered male, children are lumped in with women when it comes to messages to protect yourself from baddies.)
This particular message has been getting a bit of media discussion recently due to the work on domestic violence by Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, and an increasing awareness of what’s now known as Rape Culture, and the victim blaming that happens with domestic assault. (“Why didn’t she just leave?”)
What I love about the message in this book is that we’re telling children the truth about bad characters. No matter what we do to protect ourselves, if someone with bad intentions really wants to harm us, there is nothing we can do to stop them. A rapist intent on raping, for instance, will rape no matter what. If you manage to stay away from that person, he will simply move on to someone else, so broad announcements to baton down the hatches (don’t get drunk, don’t wear skirts etc.) do nothing. And that’s what happens in this children’s book. Instead, the little wolves have to wait for the big, bad pig to come good. If only real life were this simple, however. The big, bad pig comes good due to The Redemptive Power Of Beauty. In picture books, or especially in fairytales, beauty equals goodness.
The other part of the inversion I like is that you can’t tell a baddie from looking at them. Though the big pig is depicted as menacing, we are nonetheless conditioned to read pigs as victims and wolves as perpetrators in storybooks.
HUMOUR IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS
Oxenbury must be well aware of the typical child’s reaction upon hearing that a mother is throwing her children out of home. What sort of mother would do that, I wondered as a child. (We set a very high bar for mothers in children’s literature, even when those mothers are animals.) In her illustration — if you look very closely — the adult reader, at least, will notice a few details which depict the mother wolf as a bit of a lush. She has rollers in her hair (and tail), she’s painting her nails nonchalantly even as she’s telling her children to get out, and there is a very small bottle of something hidden in the folds of her bed covers, where she is presumably having ‘hair of the dog’.
On the topic of female characters in this story, there’s no reason why the adult reader couldn’t read the three little wolves as female. This is unlikely to happen because there are no feminine markers either, except one of the little wolves is very taken with his/her precious teapot, and my own stereotyping has me casting this wolf as female.
I like that the kangaroo with the wheelbarrow full of bricks is female. She has to be, of course, if the artist is to include the most wonderful thing about kangaroos — the joeys in their pouch. I like to think that the kangaroo construction worker would have been coded female even without the cute little joey in her pouch. Let’s have more of that in picture books!
In stories, wolves are a shorthand for opponent. This comes from the historical real life fear of wolves of course, but also from Aesop. Now that wolves are an endangered species, writers sometimes subvert this archetype and position the wolf as the sympathetic character. This also carries the message that no one is all good or all bad, and we can’t tell someone’s intentions from looking at them.
Wolves in children’s stories and fairy tales represent human nature. In turn, we judge the wolf character by human standards. Predation = human evil/wickedness.
Wicked wolves are almost always gendered male.
They have an insatiable appetite.
Wolves in stories are almost always lone wolves, even though real wolves usually hunt in packs.
Originally seen as the enemy, there has been a shift towards stories in which the wolf is victim rather than perpetrator.
Among the wolf’s arsenal of weapons: threats, entrapment, falsehood, flattery, enticement, disguise and/or deceit.
We didn’t know all that much about wolves until scientific studies that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. After that they seemed a bit less scary. The studies took place precisely to try and eradicate them, but we learned for the first time just how social they are. Until this point it was thought that wolves were only bad — they were terrible for farmers, stealing their livestock. But after they were studied properly it was discovered that they are an important part of the predator-prey dynamic that plays out in the wild, keeping nature in balance.
This change in attitude towards wolves was reflected in children’s literature. The wolf was now depicted as noble or silly or funny but always child-friendly. Where wolves once devoured or nurtured children, now children shelter and nurture wolves.
Another type of modern story is that in which the child character takes on the persona of a wolf. This can be a metaphor for releasing an inner beast or overcoming shyness through anonymity or gaining strength and courage from the wolf’s physical form.
Non-fiction books for children about wolves almost always emphasises the link between dogs and wolves, making them seem even less scary.
Sometimes illustrations of wolves play up their dog-like traits, modifying the wolf’s physical features and giving him doglike gestures instead.
In fairytales, those who survive know the wolf’s ways. Those who don’t survive tend to be sick or feeble or stupid. Common victims are sheep and other silly creatures, though chickens are more often victims to foxes.
for more see: Picturing the Wolf in Children’s Literature By Debra Mitts-Smith
Some Children’s Stories With Wolves In
WOLF’S MAGNIFICENT MASTER PLAN BY MELANIE WILLIAMSON
A lot of the best books have been written and illustrated by the same person (although some people are very good at one and not the other). This author/illustrator is an example of someone who does both equally well.
Rather than simply hunt the sheep, the wolf in this story decides to put the sheep to work knitting jumpers out of their wool. Then he will sell the jumpers to make some money to buy some new teeth. All of this is so ridiculous that it makes for a great story.
The illustrations are done in a cartoony, bright and inviting palette. My three year old loved to trace her fingers along the lines of a very long knitted scarf and roads – she’s lately been reading a book of mazes. But that aside, there’s something very satisfying about running your finger along a line like that. I wanted to do it myself.
NOT NOW, MRS WOLF! BY SHEN RODDIE ILLUSTRATED BY SELINA YOUNG
Unusually for wolf characters, this one is a female. Tick!
A commonality of many wolf stories is that the wolf kidnaps a tasty creature in order to fatten them up, thereby depleting a larder of their own delicious food. Part of me always thinks, ‘If you had all this delicious food in the first place, why do you bother eating the animal?!’ (It all started with Hansel and Gretel, of course.) The answer — I don’t need to tell you — is because wolves love to eat meat. Bear that point in mind as you read on.
This book is creepy. As in, adapted by Stephen King, the premise would make excellent fodder for horror lovers. Turn the wolf into a woman and there you have it:
The wolf steals a chicken’s egg and instead of eating the egg, decides to wait until it hatches, because then she’ll have a meat meal. But the (cutesy) hatched chick is too wet and spindly, so she decides to fatten it up, all the while doing nice things for it like taking it to the park, because happy well-fed chicks make the most delicious meat. (Have you ever read the inside of your egg carton? Me thinks this author may have been inspired thusly.)
An adult reader can already guess the ending, because children’s books have rules, after all. The chick brings home a giant, delicious looking watermelon and the wolf decides to eat that instead.
Okay, okay, that last editorial insert was mine and mine alone, but the covert pro-vegetarian message isn’t lost on me. Along with Miss Spider’s Tea Party and various other stories I’ve read of late, I’m not a fan of carnivorous animals suddenly turned into vege loving critters. I know, it’s only a story, not a David Attenborough doco, but we all have our own sense of fictional-reality . This familiar storyline crosses the line for me.
JULIE AND THE WOLVES BY JEAN CRAIGHEAD GEORGE (1972)
Wolves became extinct in England between 1485 and 1509. They survived longer in Scotland but were eventually eliminated and according to the records the last one died in 1848. Thy are now extremely rare in Western Europe. In the United States only Minnesota has a wolf population large enough to maintain itself. In Canada and Alaska their numbers have diminished and there is concern for their survival…In 1993 the Alaskan government allowed the killing of 150 wild wolves…It is heartening to note that in 1995 the wolf kill was cancelled, perhaps giving the wolf a chance of survival.
Literature is at last beginning to come to the aid of the wolf, and the field of children’s literature has produced at least one outstanding novel which presents an informed and sympathetic picture of north American wolves: Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves .
Marjery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero
Julie of the Wolves is ecologically ahead of its time, but there are ideological and representation issues, including a feminist issue with the ending. Roberta Seelinger Trites explains in Waking Sleeping Beauty that the main character lapses into the forms of earlier children’s literature such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women by becoming socialised in predictable ways in the final chapter. The ending seems unsatisfying because the reader has been unprepared for the main character’s eleventh-hour decisions to conform to conventional expectations.
And this isn’t about picturebooks at all, but rather about wolves in popular culture, but it’s a fascinating read so I have to leave a link to it somewhere: The Truth Of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem from Shuttersnipe.