Heh. I don’t know about anyone else, but I never thought any of Beatrix Potter’s stories would translate well to the big screen, least of all Peter Rabbit. Not that Potter’s stories are bad or anything–they’re classic and charming–but they’re all so short. Even The Tale of Pig Robinson is only about one-hundred twenty pages long with big type and lots of illustrations, but it’s not as marketable as Peter Rabbit. Peter’s new film might not be all bad, but I’m not terribly optimistic. I’ve seen the trailers, and there wasn’t much I recognized from the story or thought was too original in terms of comedy. It’s like they chose to recycle every sight gag and pratfall from the past hundred years or so, and not in a fresh or funny way. Mr. MacGregor screaming like a girl? Getting caught in bear traps? Stepping on a rake? Really, people? Plus, they made Mr. MacGregor into a young guy, as opposed to the elderly man with a white beard in the original story, and instead of Peter being a naughty young bunny invading his garden, he’s an older rapscallion who wrecks poor MacGregor’s house.
Here’s the one of the trailers:
Now, I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing the film. If you’re dying to, go for it. Have fun. Me, I feel like revisiting other instances when filmmakers have brought Beatrix Potter’s world to to the screen.
When my nieces were little girls, they absolutely used to love the BBC series, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends. The show animated Potter’s actual illustrations, with each episode bookended by live-action segments featuring Niamh Cusack playing Potter. She would go about her day painting, writing, being out in nature, and there would always be something that would transition each outing into one of the stories.
If you’ve got about half an hour, this is the first episode:
The series featured many distiguished British actors as guests, such as Derek Jacobi, Hugh Laurie, and Patricia Routledge. All the shows are well-done, but I think my favorite is The Tailor of Gloucester, which stars Ian Holm as the tailor. It hits all the right notes, with its cherry-colored coat, helpful mice, and “No more twist.”
As far as feature films go, one of the best (and only) examples of Beatrix Potter and her menagerie on the big screen is the 2006 movie, Miss Potter. It stars Renee Zellweger in the title role and Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne, Potter’s publisher and beau. Emily Watson has a sizeable part as well, playing Millie Warne, Beatrix’s friend and confidant.
This absorbing movie focuses on Beatrix as an adult, and is sprinkled with flashbacks from her growing-up years. Her mother is continually trying to set her up with young men, which Beatrix wants no part of, because she wants love, not money or position. Anyway, she’d rather write and draw, and her fertile imagination spawns those familiar, adorable characters who seem to leap off the page. Literally–the filmmakers had them animated. Beatrix’s characters are her friends and her art is a release, because her life is very regimented. She’s expected to behave as a proper lady of high society. Her life is so strict that she’s thirty-two and has a female escort named Miss Wiggin (Matyelok Gibbs) who follows her everywhere as if they’re tethered.
The film starts out with Beatrix shopping her Tale of Peter Rabbit around to various publishers, most of whom look over her illustrations and grunt. However, she strikes gold when Fredrick Warne & Co. agrees to take her book. The two older Warne brothers think the book is going to be a flop, so they pawn Peter Rabbit off on the youngest Warne brother, Norman, who’s new to the publishing business. Neither Norman or Beatrix were born yesterday, though, and they agree to make Peter look his best, not only to prove to Norman’s brothers that the book is more than a one-off, but because Norman believes Beatrix’s book deserves it.
Their efforts succeed, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit quickly builds a following. Beatrix is delighted to learn that she and Norman will be working together on subsequent books as well. They’re both a good team and good friends–Norman invites Beatrix to his house for tea, where she meets his mother and sister, Millie. Millie and Beatrix hit it off immediately–Millie tells her, “I must warn you, Miss Potter, I am more than prepared to like you.”
On his end, Norman does more than like Beatrix. After spiking Wiggins’s coffee with brandy, he proposes at Beatrix’s family’s Christmas party and she rapturously accepts. The only problem is, Beatrix’s parents aren’t at all pleased. Her mother (Barbara Flynn), especially, is a social-climbing snob who objected to Beatrix having Norman over in the first place, even on a professional basis: “I wish you wouldn’t bring tradespeople here. They carry dust.” Nice. Real nice.
Beatrix’s father (Bill Paterson), on the other hand, is a sweet fellow and wants his daughter to be happy. He seems to understand her better than her mother does, and he thinks the engagement is too sudden. Being a lawyer, he’s good at negotiations, and proposes that Beatrice keep her engagement a secret until after the Potters’ usual summer holiday in the Lake Country. If Beatrix finds that her love for Norman hasn’t cooled, then they can announce the engagement and start planning a wedding. Beatrix accepts, and tells her parents to prepare for a wedding in October.
Beatrix and Norman blissfully float through the next few months, and write to each other frequently once she and her parents are up at the Lake Country. When Norman’s letters suddenly stop coming, though, Beatrix begins to get worried and her mother hopeful, but then another letter arrives from Millie saying Norman is very sick. Beatrix rushes back to London, only to find she’s too late. It’s never stated what Norman dies of, although they imply that it’s pneumonia because Norman had a cough (The real Norman Warne died of lymphatic leukemia at thirty-seven). Beatrix is inconsolable, hiding out in her room. She tries to draw, but all her characters seem to be running away from her. Millie finally plays the tough love card and forces Beatrix to clean up and get out of her room.
Beatrix buys some property she looked at the last time she was in the Lake Country. Her parents aren’t too excited about it, but there’s nothing they can say, and Beatrix installs herself in a seventeenth-century farmhouse. After the shock wears off, she finds it’s the best thing she could have done after publishing her books.
Miss Potter is a rare movie, especially for one made in the twenty-first century. I honestly wish there were more like it out there. It’s respectful of its time period and its subject, it’s beautifully filmed and cast, and has just enough whimsy without being cloying. Beatrix Potter was a rare woman herself, and her story doesn’t need much embellishment to really shine. Her strength and sense of purpose are one of the many reasons she and her characters deserve to speak for themselves. Potter was a woman of her time, and yet she wasn’t–she went beyond what was usual for her day, but she acknowledged that the mindsets of her day allowed her to be who she was meant to be.
That’s why, when it comes to the new Peter Rabbit, I don’t know if Miss Potter would be too keen on it. She did have a sense of fun, but she was also a great believer in behaving oneself. Comeuppance was always in store for the naughty characters in her books, no matter who they were. Plus, as a writer, Miss Potter had a pronounced sense of respect for both her readers and her creations. I doubt she would be at all jazzed to see Peter and her other characters portrayed as vulgar little troublemakers, and knowing today’s mores, likely facing no real consequences for their actions.
Check back here tomorrow for my Day One of this:
As always, it’ll be fun. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you tomorrow!
Miss Potter is available on DVD from Amazon.