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Metaphors For Life: Chuck Jones’s Phantom Tollbooth

SHORT POST: Hey, down there at the bottom, The Phantom Tollbooth movie.  Animated by Chuck Jones, it’s long out of print, it’s got pretty colors, give it a look!

LONG POST: What with last week’s Kraken re-releasing, I’m reminded once again of the perils of adaptation, and how meddling with the stories we cherish as children is, in most cases, a doomed proposition. 

Not so much because movies, regardless of their “faithfulness,” never fully capture the scope and detail of the books they’re sometimes based on (Dune, Harry Potter), or that the sheer act of turning words into images, states of mind into dialogue, necessitates a sacrifice of some kind when jumping from interior-minded Literature to exterior-bodied Film (The Hours, Atonement).

All those notions are valid, sure, but they presuppose something that rarely gets mentioned in the great Book vs. Movie debate: that despite the slippery slope we call Language, there’s such a thing as a universally experienced book to hold against a universally experienced movie in the first place.

In other words, when male friend X tells me, “Well, I liked Atonement, but it wasn’t nearly as good as McEwan’s book,” I’m always left thinking, “That’s great, but who am I to gauge your private experience of McEwan’s book?”

In fact, maybe my private experience of McEwan’s Atonement not only kicks ass over X’s private experience of it in terms of analytical sophistication, but the “good” things he found in it are the same things I found both “trite” and “manipulative?”

Okay, now I have never read Atonement (hey, I saw the movie!) but I have read, on numerous occasions, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

It’s also, along with Disney’s Song of The South, the first film I remember seeing in theaters.  Directed by Chuck Jones, with a screenplay by Jones and Sam Rosen, The Phantom Tollbooth totally blew my then-puny kid gaskets.  I remember stumbling out of the theater declaring it the best film (out of the total four, maybe) I’d ever seen.  It was certainly the best film I’d ever seen starring The MunstersButch Patrick.

I haven’t seen Tollbooth since, and it remains out of print, but, thanks to Vimeo (see above, below), I recently took some time to revisit it.  And now…well, let’s just say Jones’s imagining of Milo’s adventures in the Doldrums and beyond no longer constitutes what I consider the best film I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it’s now maybe the opposite of that.

But why, though? Why, exactly, does Jones’s version compare so woefully to the beloved Juster book?  Well, it’s not just the crude animation and unsophisticated storytelling.  It’s something that leads back to the above-mentioned perils of adaptation and my own private experience of the book—a few pages of it, anyway.  Jones mangles a particular sequence I found—and still find—incredibly resonant: Milo’s conducting of the sunrise. 

The shorthand goes like this (for those of you with the book handy, it’s Chapter 11, Dischord and Dyne): during his quest to save Rhyme and Reason, Milo meets Chroma the Great, the conductor responsible for all the colors in the world.  The beauty of trees and sunsets, of sunshine and fireworks, all stem from the movement of Chroma’s hands and the thousands of musicians playing silently around him.

Wanting to let Chroma sleep in a bit, Milo takes the next morning’s sunrise shift.  One by one the musicians come to life: piccolo players summon the day’s first rays, cellists make the hills glow red.  Milo’s overjoyed, “because they were all playing for him, and just the way they should.”

Joy turns to terror, though, when Milo’s musicians start playing louder and faster, the colors of the world becoming “more brilliant than he thought possible.”   Milo tries to keep up, but soon the sky’s changing from blue to tan and then to red.  Flowers turn black.  “Nothing was the color it should have been, and yet, the more he tried to straighten things out, the worse they became.”

Or, to use another metaphor, one plate in the air.  Then two plates.  Soon dozens of plates.  All moving in harmony.  And then they start crashing down around you.  In all of literature, I can’t recall a more compact or accurate description of the creative process.  Or its possible dangers.

And while I’m pretty sure my kid mind didn’t grasp its meaning then, I’ve been returning to that passage ever since.  Because that’s what metaphors do.  The better ones, anyway.  They hit you in the gut before you know how or why they’re useful. 

If we’re lucky, we recognize it, maybe in the moment, maybe years later.  Is it any wonder then that the book-to-movie process can be so fraught?  One adaptor’s trash might very well be another reader’s treasure.

Which brings us to the version of this scene as imagined by Chuck Jones.  It’s in Part II, 19 or so minutes in.  As per the book, Milo meets Chroma, sends him to bed, and prepares to conduct the sunrise.  And this is where things veer off course.  Way the fuck off course.

Before those piccolos have a chance to breathe, celestial activities start going to hell, denying Milo – and the viewers – a single moment of pleasure.  Not only does this rob Juster’s sequence of its poetry, but Jones turns the creative process into all danger, no joy whatsoever. 

It gets worse from there.  As the world unravels, Juster restores order by having Milo drop his hands, signaling the musicians to stop.  What does Jones have Milo do?  He has him retreat.  Flee the scene.  Act cowardly in the face of the forces he’s unleashed.  Now, I ask you: what kind of metaphor for the creative process is that?!  Not one I’d ever expose a child to, that’s for sure. 

Jones’s Tollbooth might fail me now as a metaphor for the creative process, but it does say something about growing up, growing older…

If that process can be boiled down to the saying goodbye to everything we hold dear, maybe it’s a relief that some of those things we hold most dear aren’t worth holding on to so tightly in the first place.

Posted by Bradley Novicoff
01:10 pm