Some disconnected notes on the 2011 BBC adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (first published in 1952–the dates are important). Since the book is a) good and b) relevant to my interests (academic and otherwise) I decided drag Erin into watching it with me (and reading the book and thinking about empire–she has some really good stuff about the book here).
- The plot (book): A couple of frame narratives in, we learn that the Borrowers are tiny, humanoid creatures that live in big houses,
stealingborrowing from the “human beans”. Our main characters are a family of three, the Clocks, the only Borrowers left in a declining country house. Arrietty, the adventurous daughter, disobeys her parents, goes outside, and meets a human boy; their subsequent friendship leads him to give the Borrowers a number of things from an old doll’s house, but it also leads to their home under the floorboards being discovered so that they must escape. They end the book as exiles, forced to abandon their home and “emigrate”.
- I’ve written about the book on this site before, and it forms a biggish chunk of my thesis (which is what Erin’s referring to when she says she’s about to “read Subramanian on this”). Briefly–The Borrowers raises a number of issues around power and dependence; the Borrowers are dependent for their material needs upon humans, whom they dismiss as resources (“Human beans are for Borrowers”), but their names, language, domestic paraphenalia, are all presented as attempts at aping human cultural life, and therefore inauthentic. Through the presentation of human and borrower spaces here it’s easy (I think) to see how domestic material culture (and national identity–think of the importance of the country house to the heritage industry) is linked to the (declining) empire. And yet the whole thing is appropriately ambivalent; as Erin says in the linked post, it never straightforwardly assigns colonizer-colonized positions. In the human boy, we even have a sort of hybrid figure.
- The plot (film): This is set in the present. The human family here are a boy named James, his unemployed father, and his grandmother Mrs Driver. They live in London and are poor; the dad’s doing all he can to afford a nice family Christmas. Mrs Driver believes her house is infested by tiny creatures who steal–James and his dad think she drinks too much. James befriends Arrietty, the Borrowers are found out; this is relatively close to the book’s plot but only a small part of the film. Because Stephen Fry plays
Richard DawkinsProfessor Mildeye, a blustering scientist who is something of a joke; he’s convinced that tiny humanoid creatures exist and that he must catch them (and then display and dissect them) in order to make a name for himself in the scientific world. Pod and Homily are captured (heroically sacrificing themselves for Arrietty’s freedom) and the rest of the film is devoted to Arrietty, another Borrower named Spiller, and James attempting to rescue them before Mildeye can display them at a huge press conference. Toy cars and planes are involved; also chase scenes and Mildeye’s inept attempts at romancing Mrs Driver.
- What does the change in setting do? As Erin noted, the obvious consequence for me is that the immediate colonial context is gone; there’s probably stuff to be said about the ways in which the current economic climate is reflected in the film, but the very specific material relations that constituted (part of) empire are lost. As is Homily Clock’s obsession with perfect housekeeping, but that’s probably a relief. And yet there’s something in Mildeye’s handling of his “specimens”. Granted, this is a made-for-TV children’s movie with a lot of plot and little time to explore nuance, but we were both surprised by the scientists’ unabashed villainy–there’s no attempt to justify to themselves the displaying (like zoo animals), attempted stripping (that was an uncomfortable scene) and planned dissection of sentient beings with whom they’re able to communicate. Of course Europeans displaying or killing colonial subjects for science/curiosity/lulz has a long, proud history–though most of those earlier academics at least made the effort of trying to convince themselves their subjects weren’t fully human. (Coincidentally, we watched this film a few days after the Daily Mail reported on a story about a projected Saartjie Baartman film, referring to Baartman as the “bum woman”.)
- This chimes with other issues of power within the book, and in other, contemporary (with Norton), children’s books. In The Borrowers, the friendship between Arrietty and the boy may be genuine and well-meant, it may give them both wonderful things (they’re both lonely before they meet; she reads to him; he performs tasks she’s too small and vulnerable to do) but good intentions cannot erase that difference in power. When they’re found out, it’s Arrietty and her family who lose everything.
- I’m thinking as well of T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), which deals with questions of power, tiny people and sentience even more directly. In the book, which is about a girl in a declining English country estate who discovers and befriends the tiny descendants of some Lilliputians (I know; I promise this is a different book), the attempts of various people to capture the Lilliputians for display in circuses are very clearly seen as bad. And yet our ‘good’ characters aren’t immune to these impulses– the kindly Professor fantasises about capturing and displaying a Brobdingnagian before guiltily deciding he would pay the giant, of course. More importantly Maria, who also means well, has to learn to overcome the tendency to treat the Lilliputians like toys just because she can–she learns an important lesson when she puts a Lilliputian in a toy aeroplane and flies it, and he falls out and is badly injured. (The Lilliputians also learn an important lesson, but decide to forgive Maria anyway. I’m not sure that was wise.) Both The Borrowers (book) and Mistress Masham’s Repose demonstrate that good intentions don’t protect you, if you’re powerful, from causing harm to vulnerable people; MMR further suggests that a disparity of power is going to make it inherently harder for the more powerful party to see the less powerful as fully human (for want of a better word).
- There’s a weird echo of the aeroplane scene in MMR in this film. James shoots Arrietty out of a sling, and I’m wincing and waiting for her to be badly hurt. She doesn’t–conveniently unbreakable, she thanks him for the exciting ride. Later on the plot to rescue her parents has her taking rides in toy aeroplanes and cars. James is Arrietty’s friend; he likes her and so cannot harm her. (Their relationship is presented as even more egalitarian because the Clocks give the human family a rare coin that solves their financial dificulties). It’s the bad people who are a threat to the Borrowers’ personhood–power in and of itself is rendered irrelevant.
- The other possibility, of course, is that issues of personhood and power aren’t raised in any sustained way because practically every man in this film is evil and terrifying. In the book, the Clocks live in isolation because they genuinely don’t know where to find the other Borrowers and it’s too dangerous to go looking; and what if Borrowers are dying out? They might be the last of their kind, holed up in this hiding place, waiting for the end. Pod does plan to teach Arrietty how to Borrow, because this is a basic survival skill she needs to learn. In the film, he refuses to let his daughter go out at all, insisting that he provides enough for his small family that she shouldn’t need to. This feels like the beginning of a horror story–and when we discover that there are in fact hundreds of Borrowers living communally in London, and that Pod and his family are welcome among them, it gets more suspicious still (and then Pod gets violently protective of the young man flirting with his daughter. This could so easily be a much more sinister story). Eventually we’re given the backstory–Pod is a hero among the other Borrowers but there was one girl he couldn’t save from a disaster–his niece. See? Says the film. We told you there was a reasonable explanation! Except that this is not a reasonable explanation for locking up your wife and child for years and refusing to let them see other people ever, so this backstory hasn’t helped at all.
- It’s rather a pity that all these other Borrowers exist. One effect is to take away our focus on the isolation of this family–there are moments in the book that feel genuinely apocalyptic (though there’s a wonderful moment in the film [see picture] when all three Clocks hide under their dining table that recalls Cold War era duck and cover drills).There’s a version of this story (it wouldn’t be The Borrowers, but hey) in which film!Pod is aware that the world has ended, and he’s keeping the two women locked up in a misguided attempt to protect them from that knowledge until they all die together. (I think I’ve read that horribly bleak SF short story.)
- About the only bit of Pod’s overprotectiveness that does make sense is his initial distrust of Spiller, the young Borrower boy the family hire to guide them to a safe new home. Spiller is gross. Spiller’s flirtation technique is to sexually harrass Arrietty into exhausted compliance. Spiller is from that really horrible moment in 90s Bollywood and someone should punch him, though I’d prefer Arrietty rather than Pod to be the one to do so. Unfortunately, when Pod and Homily are trapped by Mildeye, he decides to literally hand his daughter over to Spiller to look after. Solid parenting as ever there, Pod.
- To be fair, there’s a solid argument for reading Arrietty’s sex life as central to the book and film. As Erin says, there are some erotically charged moments in the book, when Arrietty first goes outside, and as she and the boy learn about each other. But on an even more basic level the book, and Arrietty herself, are concerned with “saving the race”–it doesn’t seem to occur to her that to do that she might need to find a nice Borrower boy. In the film this does seem to occur to her and everyone else–early on, when Pod protests that he provides everything Arrietty needs, we’re reminded that she has Other Needs (though there’s no un-disturbing answer to how Pod should provide for those).
- James finds a dollshouse bed for Arrietty and Spiller to sleep in. “Is there another bed?” asks Arrietty (I’m paraphrasing) as the two boys smile at her (James innocently, Spiller leeringly) and ask what the problem is. She has to get into bed with Spiller. But she does manage to kick him out when he gets too threatening (the film presumably doesn’t think of its target audience as one likely to have experienced sharing beds with men who will not stop, and apparently sees this as all in good fun).
- Arrietty eventually admits she has feelings for Spiller and the two leave to have adventures, with Pod and Homily’s blessing. UGH.
- How many people are likely to have read The Borrowers? Erin observed that adaptations of other children’s books tend to be a lot more faithful–and I wonder if part of the reason this is able to be the film it is is because this book has fallen out of the popular canon (is it in bookshops? do actual children read it?) to some extent. Everyone knows it’s about tiny people; the rest is optional. (Erin: “[but] it could as easily be Jim the little fairy who lives in your house. Fae are common property.”)
- A thing I miss about the book is the sense you get of a switch in perspective. I love what Erin says in her post about the clever cover art of her edition and the tricks it plays with regard to size. In the book, most of the time we’re seeing through the eyes of Arrietty who is the right size for a Borrower, and so the human world is huge to us. It’s no accident that I refer to the boy in the book as The Boy, and to James in the film–the film roots itself in the human, gives the humans context and story and thus loses its capacity for estrangement. This is a vital difference for me. The book is set in a vast and terrifying landscape populated by huge creatures that can kill you–the film is set in your nan’s house with cute tiny creatures scurrying around. It keeps the Borrowers small. And it renders the film safe–the heartwarming tale of How Little James Helped The Friendly Tiny People With No Bad Consequences For Him Or Them looks a lot more fraught from the other side.
Which is a lot of words to say “this film is mediocre”, but hey.