Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Read the book. Watch the movie, too: The Brave Little Toaster

The Brave Little Toaster
by Thomas M. Disch

Written with all the formality and eloquence of a children’s book from the nineteenth century, The Brave Little Toaster is the story about five appliances in a remote, abandoned cabin who travel across the forest to find their master. Think Homeward Bound, but with a toaster, a hoover, an electric blanket, a radio and a lamp.

These ordinary household appliances are in the forest on a journey to find their master. Most appliances just sit alone and accept their fate, but not them. They love their master, and they're not going to believe they've been abandoned. They take matters into their own hands, all thanks to the toaster who pushes them out the door.

The story charmed me. It’s written like Bambi and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the old-style children’s story format makes it seem more authentic. Even perfectly natural. It just takes for granted that appliances come to life when people aren't looking. It never explains itself, which encourages us to accept it and move on.

It loosely creates the world of the inanimate objects. It imbues appliances with hopes, dreams, and even fears, all related in some way to their function. Each appliance sees the world a little different. For example, the blanket is not too friendly with the air conditioner because the blanket doesn’t have any good feelings for an appliance whose function is to make things colder. It makes sense. It's how an appliance would think.

One of my favorite details is the description of the toaster taking time out to be by itself and toast pretend pieces of bread, since it lacks real bread or english muffins. The way it’s described made me feel the toaster's joy, feel its hope. Toaster wants to give its all to its master, and just thinking of toasting a perfect english muffin for him fills the toaster with glee. It’s adorable!

But first they have to survive the pirates! People who steal appliances from their rightful owners and force them to do their bidding instead! And when the radio is held hostage by a pirate in the junkyard, they will have to break a couple rules to free him. Nope, these appliances do NOT accept their fate! They're calling the shots now!

After everything they go through to find their master, it ends, appropriately, like a fairytale. It’s such a cute little story that everyone can identify with. The appliances want to be useful. Probably the most basic need of any animate or inanimate object. They want to serve their master, and they’ll go to any length to find him. It’s a story I read with a smile.

Compare that to...

The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

One of those movies that defined my childhood. It's been some twenty years since I saw it. Good time to read the book and then look back on the film.

It's the same story. Five abandoned appliances decide to go out and find their master themselves. Instead of telling it like an old-style children's tale, the filmmakers elected to modernize it cinematically. It's not very often a movie actually improves on the original story, but this 1987 animated movie does. It's a huge improvement.

The biggest difference is the personalities of the appliances. In the story, the appliances don't have personalities, or unique voices, or even unique talents that help the group. (Except for the toaster, who comes up with the ideas.) This is intentional; it's written as a narrative, just like stories were back in the ninetieth century.

In the film, each appliance is given a personality. The vacuum (a Kirby, not a Hoover) is the grumpy one. The blanket is the kid. The radio is like an announcer, often narrating their activities from third person. Now the appliances are people we can care about, instead of just storybook characters.

It preserves the novella's perspective on appliances. Such as, the lamp doesn't understand the toaster's analogy that the feeling it gets from being nice to the blanket is like being next to a new loaf of bread. But the lamp does understand it when toaster calls it a "glow." Lamps can understand glowing feelings. An excellent way to translate narrative description into dialogue. (What does it say about human beings, since we can understand both perspectives?)

As a whole, the screenwriters took every plot point in the story and expanded them to more cinematic proportions. For example, in the novella, the appliances are caught by the man who lives in (owns?) the junkyard and they pull a ghost trick on him to rescue the radio from being used against its will. The movie has the appliances caught by the owner of a parts shop, and they use the ghost trick to save the radio from being taken stripped for parts.

The story has a very narrative ending. I won't spoil it, but it's anything but cinematic. It's not a bad ending; not at all. In fact it adds to the fairytale quality. But it needed more if we were gonna spend 90 minutes building up to it. Instead of ending in their master's apartment with a phone call, it ends in the junkyard with a scramble to avoid getting crushed and cubed as scrap metal. A much bigger climax to match a much bigger buildup.

Same ideas, but BIGGER!

The songs are catchy, too. As a kid I never understood the lyrics, and even today I can't catch all of them, but the melody and mood are more than enough to convey what they're getting across. Especially the later songs, which not only sing about, but show the appliance's helplessness in the outside world. My favorites are Cutting Edge and Worthless. B Movie made me smile because I didn't get it when I was a kid, but now that I'm an adult I know why it's there.

Disch wrote it like a story told after it happens, instead of a story shown as it happens. That was the style he was going for, and as a bedtime story in this vein it's perfect. Short, cute, with a fairytale ending as the cherry. The filmmakers did a fantastic job expanding on the idea and making it cinematic. It still preserves the theme of the novella: the need to be useful. That's all the appliances want, and everybody can appreciate that.

So watch the movie! It's not dumbed down for kids, it's never annoying, and it tells a good, mature story. But if you can find a copy of the original novella, you should read it. Never settle for the adaptation; find out what the author wrote.


(PS--Good luck with that. It was published as a book on its own, but it's horribly out of print. Everybody wants $80 and up for a used copy. After some more digging I learned it was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way back in 1980. It was easier to hunt down a back issue of this magazine than to find a copy of the book edition. I'm happy it was worth the hunt.

And I noticed in the movie the radio quotes Moby Dick. "Damn, thee, thou curs'ed whale. From the depths of hell I stab at thee." How did they get away with that in a kid's movie?

And what's with the wobbly frame? Couldn't they keep the picture stable?

And I noticed the appliances don't seem to need that battery to move about. It's established they're pretty dependent on electricity, and yet they move around quite well without it all through the movie. Ah, it's not perfect, but it's a great movie!)

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