Tuesday, May 15, 2012

“Vinni Pukh” (Story and Adaptation 2)

I haven’t ever thought of it as being so, but “Winnie the Pooh” might be one of my favorite books. It is one of the few that I own and have read in multiple languages. It is a classic story that speaks to all ages and on so many different levels. I have read it as a child and an adult, and I some of my earliest memories involve the Disney version of the stories on View-Master.

So, imagine my surprise last week when I discovered that there is a trilogy on animated films out of Russia that adapt some of the same stories that Disney did, and that they are apparently as popular in the old Eastern Bloc countries as Disney’s are in the west! They are all to be found with subtitles on Youtube, and they really are worth checking out.

More than anything else, they are a tremendously entertaining exercise in adaptation and the impact that the WAY a story is told has on the story itself. Swiss animator, Oswald Iten, wrote a lengthy piece comparing the Russian films with the Disney ones. (That is where I was first made aware of them.) In it, he points out that while both adaptations are VERY faithful to the source material, the Russian version brings more immediacy to the telling by eliminating much of the story-telling device present in both the Milne book and the Disney films. He argues that this is one of the best aspects of the Russian films.

I think it is where they precisely miss the point.

The soviet films (by filmmaker Fyodor Khitruk) are entertaining and beautiful in their own way. They do stay true to the plot and even direct lines from the book. However, one of the greatest appeals of Milne’s stories is the way that they go beyond telling us amusing anecdotes about some stuffed toys in an imaginary world. The fact that we know that they are stories told by a father to his child about the child and his toys adds a dimension that endears us all the more to the characters and the events. We know that these stories are more than their plotlines. They are about the affection of a father for his child. They tell us (and the boy) a lot about him and his character. We see a boy learning about life from his father through the art of storytelling.

The Disney versions of these stories don’t quite grasp that dimension either. They do create an exercise in storytelling, however. We have a narrator how interacts with the characters and they inhabit the imaginary world contained in a book. It is a different approach but it still carries some of the unique way in which Milne approached his stories.

When the Russian version simply tells the stories in the same way that any animated film would any story, Pooh seems to lose some of its impact. They are still good tales told in a creative, artful way, but they no longer stand out as something special. We get the plot, but without much of the larger point.

And after all, great stories are told for a reason.

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