Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Borrowers

Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers is a classic of British children's literature. The book and its sequels have been read by generations of children now, and adapted for television and film many times. One such adaptation is a recent Studio Ghibli film, 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Karigurashi no arietti, The Secret World of Arrietty, 2010).  Ghibli is the studio of MIYAZAKI Hayao (宮崎駿), who directed many of Japan's best animated films. Arrietty is directed not by Miyazaki, but by YONEBAYASHI Hiromasa (米林 宏昌). Still, Miyazaki was one of the writers of the screenplay. As with other Ghibli films where Miyazaki was screenwriter, but not director, the story is better constructed, but perhaps less imaginative. I suspect that as director he can change his mind more and follow his own ideas, even when it's too late to work them into the story properly.

The Borrowers is a story of little people. Borrowers live under the floorboards or behind the panelling of human's houses. They take small amounts of human food and put unwanted or unnoticed little objects to new uses for their furniture and tools. Little people stories are popular in Japan: I wrote earlier about INUI Tomiko's 木かげの家の小人たち (Kokage no ie no kobitotachi, The Little People in the House in the Tree's Shadow, 1959) and SATOU Satoru's だれも知らない小さな国 (Dare mo shiranai chiisana kuni, A Little Country No-one Knows, 1959). The Borrowers itself had been translated into Japanese in 1956; and it's easy to imagine that it had an influence, particularly on the character of Inui's family (who are after all English fairies, thought living in Japan).

When I saw the film, it had been decades since I read the book; and my impression was that the two were quite similar. The only difference I noticed while watching was that the boy had been made older, so that he looked the same age as Arietty, allowing viewers to see it as a kind of romance. On rereading the book, I found that the film actually makes lots of changes of plot and detail, though both the outline and the ideas are still largely derived from the book.

My memories of the book were quite vague, so rereading brought some surprises. In particular, it's very well written, in a particular way – with a love of small, accurate detail. This is the kind of thing that appeals to some children and not others, I think. It's certainly less common in recent children's books. Conveniently, the children it does appeal are probably going to be the kind of children who like stories about tiny people hiding in human's houses. The careful detail is partly in the dialogue, partly in the description of the little world the characters live in, and the things they adapt to their needs. I also had no memory of the elements of satire in the story, which comes from a more class conscious age (and is set somewhere around 1900, where class was even more an issue). Here is Arrietty's mother talking about the other borrower families that had once live in the house.

'Who were the Overmantels?' asked Arrietty.

'Oh you must've heard me talk of the Overmantels,' exclaimed Homily, 'that stuck-up lot who lived in the wall high up – among the lath and plaster behind the mantelpiece in the morning-room. And a queer lot they were. The men smoked all the time because the tobacco jars were kept there; and they'd climb about and in and out the carvings of the overmantel, sliding down the pillars and showing off. The women were a conceited lot too, always admiring themselves in all those bits of overmantel looking-glass. They never asked anyone up there and I, for one, never wanted to go. ... I don't know whether it's true but they do say that those Overmantel men used to have a party every Tuesday after the bailiff had been to talk business in the morning-room. Laid out, they'd be, dead drunk – or so the story goes – on the green plush tablecloth, all among the tin boxes and the account books –'

'Now, Homily,' protested Pod, who did not like to gossip, 'I never see'd 'em.'

'But you wouldn't put it past them, Pod. You said yourself when I married you not to call on the Overmantels.'

'They lived so high,' said Pod, 'that's all.'
There's something in a story about tiny people that invites writers to look at the petty side of the human character, in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), for instance, and in Terry Pratchett's Truckers (1989), which incidentally is a very good children's book, in a different way. Pod and Homily both have a limited outlook on the world and are to some extent figures of fun for the author, but still impressive, as they face the constant dangers that their lives involve. Here they are discussing Arrietty's education.

'Now, now,' said Pod, 'don't bring up the past.'

'But you've got to think of it! they got the cat and –'

'Yes,' said Pod, 'but Eggletina was different.'

'How different? She was Arrietty's age.'

'Well they hadn't told her, you see. That's where they went wrong. They tried to make her believe that there wasn't nothing but was under the floor. They never told her about Mrs Driver or Crampfurl. Least of all about cats.'

'There wasn't any cat,' Homily pointed out, 'not till Hendreary was "seen".'

'Well, there was, then,' said Pod. 'You got to tell them, that's what I say, or they try to find out for themselves.'

'Pod,' said Homily solemnly, 'we haven't told Arrietty.'

The Ghibli film changes the emphasis in several ways. Homily is much the same houseproud, fearful character as in the book, Pod is significantly changed. In both book and film, he is gruff and straightforward; but film Pod is more dour and more heroic and the film makes more of Arrietty's relationship to him. Arrietty is a similar character in book and film, but book Arrietty is more stifled. At the beginning of the book, unlike film Arrietty, she has never been outside the little home under the floorboards. As I said above, the boy in the book is much younger than Arrietty, so that the character of their friendship is very different. Two new elements are borrowed from later in the series, Spiller and the voyage in a kettle. The borrowers riding the tin kettle is on the cover of the Japanese translation of The Borrowers Afloat.

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