I am not a big fan of the conventional attitude that dismisses filmic interpretations of books as inevitably inferior to the original. The filmic interpretation of a work of literature can be an accessible introduction to the work, or a good reinterpretation which renews the work according to modern-day sensibilities. However, having said this, I must confess that I have been horribly let down by interpretations of Roald Dahl’s works in the past. For example, The Fantastic Mr. Fox lacked the energy of the book while Tim Burton’s attempt at a film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was simply lamentable.
It was in this context of previous disappointments and low expectations that I sat down with the rest of the family to watch Esio Trot, a book which my oldest nephew had recently read. The film opened on a pair of tortoises, then James Corden, a figure whose voice I find irritating and whose presence I find even more so. Was I in for another disappointment?
The answer is a resounding ‘no’. When the story got going, I was enthralled. The magic of Dahl’s text and the charm of this story of love and invention amongst the elderly inhabitants of a block of flats in London took hold of my heart. The understated performance from Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy and the exuberance and spirit of Dame Judi Dench as the captivating Mrs. Silver were extraordinary, bravura achievements in the art of presenting character. The contemporising reinterpretation of the story by the talented screenwriters (Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer) was also a resounding success. They added an additional character in the form of the brash and greedy chatterbox, Mr. Pringle and gave the children figures to identify with. They took daring liberties with the original story which gave me a great deal of insight about how this seemingly innocent tale of love worked in the original and how it is seen through a more up-to-date lens.
The story in brief is extraordinarily simple. Mr. Hoppy is a shy fellow who has his heart upon Mrs. Silver, who lives in the flat below him. Their conversations all take place either in the lift of the building, or from their balconies, since Mr. Hoppy has been unable to overcome his reserved nature and has never invited her into his flat (of course, this relies on the tradition that the man must make the first move). Now, Mrs. Silver has a pet tortoise called Alfie. Her heart’s desire is that he become big and strong. Mr Hoppy discovers this desire and aims to fulfil it. He concocts a story about a magic spell which will make Alfie bigger and sets about replacing the tortoise with incrementally larger specimens in the good-natured project to make Mrs. Silver happy and to earn her respect and admiration, to win her heart. We then follow this adventure in love and the trials and tribulations that result from it.
While the story is simple, the up-to-date reinterpretation of the tale focuses on some serious and complex implicit themes in Roald Dahl’s original work. Firstly, the film is a serious exploration of loneliness in old age. In the west, many elderly people live apart from their families in their old age and struggle with loneliness (unlike India, where the older generation live in the company of their younger families and are taken proper care of). Mr. Pringle openly comments on this loneliness when he makes a try for the desirable Mrs. Silver. Mr Hoppy’s attempt to win her love is therefore something more than a desire for Mrs. Silver: it is his last, desperate attempt to save himself from the loneliness of being a single old man in the city. Mrs. Silver is also lonely: we learn that she is a widow that greatly misses her husband, and we are invited to see her over-the-top love for Alfie as an outpouring of the maternal affection which she was not able to bestow on her own offspring, not being able to have children (a result which led her to overcompensate, as she became a midwife). The work is a therefore a reflection on a modern-day loneliness which, ironically enough, exists in one of the most crowded cities in the world, and which may beset any one of the members in our society as they grow older.
Another major theme in the story is the mystery behind Mr. Hoppy. Although, with great cinematic skill, I may add, we learn to love and get behind this character, the film shows how much we don’t know about the man. Mr. Pringle, with his incessant chatter, never lets us discover his past. The only clues we have about his identity are his passions for horticulture, his collection of aeroplanes and his hope to one day go on a fishing expedition to Canada. This lack of characterisation and a past, which somehow doesn’t stop our sympathies for this lonely, old man, is intriguing. Why is Mr. Hoppy such a blank slate? Why does this very lack of identity pull us into his character and pull forth such empathy?
Of course, another major theme of the film is the relation between love and trickery. In the book, Mr. Hoppy’s trick wins him the woman. In the contemporary adaptation, the discovery of the trick almost loses him the woman. Yet the morality behind the assessment of Mr. Hoppy’s trick is put into question when we also learn that Mrs. Silver has also been tricking Mr. Hoppy by manufacturing their meetings together. The relationship between love and trickery, between desire and the dupe is complex and very revealingly interrogated in this work of the imagination.
While the film is rationally satisfying, because of its rich themes and its exploration of difficult questions, it is also emotionally satisfying. We feel great kinship with Mr. Hoppy, the lover and the inventor. We fall in love with Mrs. Silver through Dame Jude Dench’s wonderful representation of her. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian commented in her review of the film, it is full of charm, a charm which is not easily manufactured. Although I could have done without James Corden and felt something of a slight shock in the free additions to the adaptation of the piece, always unsettling for the Dahl purist, there was a great strength and unity to the piece, a balanced harmony of the familiar and the strange, the expected and the unexpected – a trait which I believe Dahl would have valued himself, as he loved startling his readers.