Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Selfish Giant (Potterton Productions/Reader's Digest, 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles ran me a half-hour cartoon short of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant from 1971 which was a special favorite of his, and which he thought was unique even though, when I searched for it on, seven other versions came up, including some made for television (notably a 1939 version from the BBC’s experimental TV production group), and a version dated 2013, though that one is described as “a contemporary fable about two scrappy 13-year-old working-class friends in the UK who seek fortune by getting involved with a local scrap dealer and criminal, leading to tragic consequences.” Exactly what that has to do with Wilde’s story, if anything, is something I won’t know until I see it. In any event, this Selfish Giant is a quite charming, if rather crudely animated, 26-minute cartoon offered by, of all companies, Reader’s Digest, based on a Wilde story that’s a pretty obvious parable about the joys of altruism and the dangers of selfishness — the sort of children’s story you might expect from an author who wrote an essay called “The Soul of Man under Socialism” that clearly came from a point of view that regarded socialism as a good thing.

The story deals with a giant (though given the scale with which he was drawn as compared to the human characters he’s not that giant — more like about 12 feet — and his appearance, particularly his facial structure and his clothes, made me think the animators were deliberately copying the famous Frankenstein monster makeup from the Universal films) who leaves his castle and garden for seven years to visit the Cornish Ogre, an equally jumbo-sized humanoid who lives on an island. When he returns, he finds that children have made it a habit to play in his beautiful garden. Being selfish, he’s horrified by this and immediately puts up a “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign, walls off his castle and garden, and makes sure the kids can’t come in and play. He’s visited by Winter, the North Wind, Jack Frost and Hail, all of whom camp out in his garden and turn it into a year-round wasteland of frost, cold and other unpleasantnesses. Then one child manages to discover a crack in the wall and sneak in, and the Selfish Giant takes pity on him, installs him at the top of a tree in the garden, and by his example the child attracts Spring and more clement weather beings and turns the garden beautiful again. The Giant tears down the wall and the sign, lets the children play in his garden again, but is broken-hearted because he never again sees the child who sneaked in and softened his attitude in the first place — until the very end of the story, in which the mystery child literally turns out to be Jesus Christ (we can tell by the wounds on his hands and feet left by the Crucifixion), who tells the giant, “You let me play once in your garden; today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.” Then the giant is allowed to die (the story has taken place over decades and by then he’s quite old) in peace.

The 1971 adaptation is a bit on the cutesy-poo side for me, complete with a couple of highly sappy songs that sound like cross-breeds between Disney musicals and soft-rock, though Charles assured me (and I just confirmed by looking up the original online) that most of the third-person narration we hear throughout the film comes from Oscar Wilde. It’s a genuinely charming tale, effectively if not especially creatively told here, quite moving in its way even though more than a bit didactic. Indeed, while we were watching it I couldn’t help imagine the story as Ayn “Virtue of Selfishness” Rand would have written it; in her version, of course, the giant’s brilliant entrepreneurial spirit would have ensured that his garden blossomed while everyone else’s stayed stuck in winter, and at the end he would emerge from behind the wall and say, “If you want to play in my garden, you will have to do so on my terms.” (One quirky fact about the film listed on the movie was also released in a French-language version, and for the French soundtrack narrator Paul Hecht was replaced by, of all people, Charles Aznavour. If only they’d tapped him for the songs as well!)