Film images courtesy of Movie Star News
Beatrix Potter images courtesy of BBC/Victoria and Albert Museum Exhibition
I’m not sure when this happened, but over the past 20 years there has been a concerted effort to promote the idea that the past can’t be comprehended by children of the present. I don’t have a calendar for when this phenomenon started, but it is definitely in full swing. Case in point: the trailer for the new “Peter Rabbit” film. To say that I was horrified while watching it would be an understatement. To suggest that it filled me with despair and dread — a dark, bubbling anxiety about the future of humanity — would be an overstatement, but just by a hare’s hair.
Yes, the teaser trailer for “Peter Rabbit,” the movie is set to be released in the United States on February 9 2018, was an abomination about everything that was sweet and gentle, mischievous and quirky, rustic and lovely, about the Beatrix Potter tales. In place of a rabbit that is clever and courageous — and, yes, the bane of Farmer McGregor’s existence — the 2018 CGI-animated film is an offensive onslaught that portrays Peter as a homicidal maniac. Rather than digging in the next-door neighbor’s lettuce patch, the modern-day Peter is gleefully setting traps, causing chaos, and attempting to electrocute and murder the young man who has moved into the neighboring home.
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Even now, I can’t believe that the Potter estate and her shepherding publishing company, Frederick Warne, which curated her books and collectibles with dignity and professionalism, permitted this celebration of carnage and destruction. But that’s what I mean about modern-day children supposedly not being able to connect with the temperaments and the motifs of a decade ago, let alone a century ago!
Seeing Peter Rabbit portrayed as a smartass, looking to get over on his neighbors, is certainly discouraging. I don’t think his creator, Beatrix Potter, would object to him being made into a computer-generated image. She was a very astute businesswoman and ahead of our time with recognizing the blending of literature with licensing. It was 1902 — more than 115 years ago — and Potter was bright enough to make the connection between parents buying books for their children and then purchasing three-dimensional renderings of the prized characters.
An author and an illustrator, a conservationist and a woman of science, Beatrix Potter was independently wealthy. Even before she amassed a fortune from the sales of her 30 children’s books, and all the stuffed animals, ceramic pottery, wall hangings, and other merchandise that she personally oversaw, Potter was an heiress. She had a huge trust fund, then a family inheritance, so the bounty from her books was all gravy. She did not NEED the money; rather, she enjoyed creating the stories, painting the watercolor pictures that mirrored her text, and then envisioning what collectibles would help to make her world view a household necessity. (Children’s dishes and porcelain banks that were emblazoned with the Potter characters were enormously in demand during Potter’s lifetime. Families the world over bought these for their little ones, and they were emblematic of a charming and genteel mind-set.)
Since Beatrix Potter was not adverse to making a buck — and making many, many bucks, in fact — I don’t think she would object to a film that goes beyond hand-drawn film cells and re-imagines her bunny children as state-of-the-art CGI characters. I don’t think she would be a Luddite, objecting to technology versus a solo animator laboriously sketching out every facial tick and bodily movement. I do, however, think that she would loudly and vehemently object to the coarsening of her characters. The woman dreamed up talking and caring animals of nature — little creatures of God who showed loyalty and respect to one another. When one or two of her characters were naughty, she didn’t hesitate to label them as such — hence, her story “The Tale of Two Bad Mice.”
Much of Potter’s money went to fund local conservation projects in the Lake District of England. She gave money to create nursing trusts for rural communities and bought up farms that were floundering and had fallen on hard times. She wanted to preserve these tracts of land as agricultural and not allow them to become overdeveloped by land speculators and real estate barons. She wanted to preserve the pristine nature of the bucolic part of England where she lived. She didn’t want to see it destroyed and ruined by commercialization. How funny, then, that the “Peter Rabbit” movie is doing just that to her intellectual legacy. It is being corrupted by the need to be more “commercial,” more Nickelodeon than nostalgic, more “Home Alone” than a homespun paean to a bygone era.
Beatrix Potter’s life story was given a mild Hollywood treatment in 2006 with the fictionalized biopic “Miss Potter.” Treading that line between reality and fantasy, the movie focused on Potter’s doomed romance with her editor Norman Warne, who died of complications from leukemia before his 38th birthday. He and Beatrix had a clandestine love affair, which they conducted with one another as they worked on her manuscripts. The initial, tentative, copy-editing communication between author and editor gradually morphed into outpourings of affection, and then proclamations of love. In the film, the two leads were embodied by onetime It girl Renée Zellweger and former heartthrob Ewan McGregor. (No relation to the McGregor farmer who is Peter Rabbit’s foil.)
In true, ironic cinematic fashion, the two glamorous movie stars were downplayed and were made up to look less charismatic than their earlier screen roles. The director wanted them to approximate the tintypes of Beatrix and Norman as much as possible. He wanted their attractive movie-star personalities to be squelched.
Because Norman Warne was a workingman — editing was considered a trade, not a gentleman’s profession in the early 1900s — Beatrix’s family did not approve of a relationship between the two. Even though she was an adult, aged 39, Beatrix kept their engagement under wraps, only confiding in a few friends and her future sister-in-law. Sadly, Norman passed away before they could get married, and Beatrix was content to live a solitary life with her make-believe characters and her charity work.
Love found her once again, when she began her campaign to buy enough tracts of land to form a British national park system. The solicitor who assisted and advised her became her husband, whom she married at the age of 47. Nearly 50 years old, Beatrix Potter was a woman who knew her own worth, and wanted to be involved in worthwhile projects. She did not suffer fools gladly, and she was determined to be a custodian for nature and for preserving land in an unspoiled way. She and her husband, William Heelis, collaborated to ensure that her environmental dreams could become a real-world reality. They succeeded.
When Beatrix Potter passed away in 1943, at the age of 77, she was the purveyor of a publishing empire. Consider her the Walt Disney cum Martha Stewart of her day. She was writing and drawing figures that became part of British popular fiction and have continued to endure 75 years after her death. Her foray into licensing and branding Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Little Pig Robinson, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Tom Kitten (to name a few) was a brilliant business strategy. She made her pages literally become real to children and their parents. She was able to perceive that having a board game or bed linens with Peter Rabbit on it would make him all the more lovable and relatable to his admirers.
Also, long before Bono sang his first charity fund-raiser song, she realized that the revenue she was earning could be applied to making her slice of England a better place. She used the sales of her goods to do good.
So, 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” will hop into movie theaters in February. Perhaps the producers have heard the groans and gasps during the trailer and have recut the film, possibly editing out some of the more vicious and violent interludes. After all, Ridley Scott re-edited a whole movie to replace and recast the disgraced Kevin Spacey. Maybe it’s not too far-fetched to think that a group of CGI rabbits can be made more kind, more courteous, and more humane. It’s the least the director and producer can do to honor a woman who stood solidly on the ground of her convictions, to save the ground that surrounded her home, her village, and her community.