The Tale of the Bad Object

Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/GW Films

When I became a father, among my top priorities was acquiring copies of Beatrix Potter’s works for our burgeoning family library. I grew up on these most classic of fables; I’ve been told I could quote The Tale of Peter Rabbit chapter and verse almost as soon as I could form sentences, and some of my earliest memories are defined by the heavenly portrait of the English Lake District traversed by Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and Jemima Puddle-Duck.

Only once Potter’s books—those slim volumes only about the size of my adult palm—were back in my possession did I recall the eerie feelings they had the power to conjure. My memory had dampened the brutality visited upon Squirrel Nutkin after his mockery of the owl Old Brown goes too far; I’d entirely forgotten the undertones of weird magic hinted at during little Lucie’s odyssey to Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s burrow.

Even more striking were the notes of darkness I had never noticed as a child: how Jemima’s ordeal—not just her near death at the hands of the debonair fox but the loss of her cherished eggs as collateral damage in her rescue—leaves her with a seemingly debilitating nervous condition; how Nutkin’s punishment by Old Brown leaves him deprived of not just a tail but evidently the power of speech.

These stories, so brief yet referred to as “novels” by Potter scholar M. Daphne Kutzer for their deft plotting and characterization, precisely straddle the line between the civilized and the wild. The misadventures of their animal protagonists demonstrate just how thin that line can be—sometimes all it takes is the shedding of a waistcoat to reveal the beast lurking beneath the genteel exterior. Potter’s works take place in a timeless yet specifically Victorian England where magical thinking intersects with dream logic, and all the potential for surreal dread that term implies.

“Do you remember when you were small?” This is the question at the heart of the advertising for 1971’s Tales of Beatrix Potter, the first authorized cinematic adaptation of Potter’s works. The theatrical trailer for this balletic interpretation, directed by Reginald Mills and performed by members of the Royal Ballet, plays on exactly the rosy memories I cherished before revisiting the books in adulthood. An ecstatic narrator reminds the prospective viewer how “the tales of Beatrix Potter introduced us to an animal world that we could identify with ourselves.” Making his sales pitch directly to the adults in the audience, he stresses that “Peter Rabbit and his friends were our friends.” With the images of Potter’s covers superimposed over the clips so forcefully that the film itself might seem secondary to the nostalgic value of its very existence, he repeatedly asks, “Do you remember?” Yet the light and whimsical memories the marketing department hoped to trigger might be somewhat out of step with the pastoral awe and dank foreboding conjured by the film itself. 

Tales of Beatrix Potter opens with a breathtaking, expansive view of the Lake District, an Arcadian paradise that’s soon made odd—whether delightfully or eerily so will depend on the viewer’s persuasion—by the intrusion of a 6-foot Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, here embodied by choreographer Frederick Ashton under a full-body hedgehog suit. Even odder is the atmosphere generated once Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle enters her home: as shadows encroach around the edges of the frame, the production design evokes the feeling of an anthropomorphized burrow with visceral tactility, a sensation made uncomfortably unnatural by the immobile expression on the too-large Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s face.

Watching Tales of Beatrix Potter, I’m reminded of nothing so much as Louis Malle’s Black Moon or Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, two other films that take archetypes of children’s literature and give them a good twist of the screw to reveal the uncanny lurking beneath the surface. Adapting beloved children’s classics with such a moody sensibility seems so counterintuitive it approaches the transgressive—and in a lengthy Los Angeles Times profile on the production of Tales of Beatrix Potter, a studio publicist did describe the film as “more daring than a porno.” That quote refers to the audacity of releasing a defiantly wholesome work into a burgeoning New Hollywood landscape, but it could just as easily refer to rendering Potter’s stories with so few sentimentalized guardrails.

If one sequence functions as an interpretive key to the film’s bizarre effects, it would have to be the early passage in which the camera travels through a child’s portrait framed on Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s wall, finding on the other side young Beatrix herself. Where in the parallel narrative, anthropomorphized creatures leap and twirl through her stories, there is no dancing in Beatrix’s home, nor any music. In fact, there is very little sound at all save for the clacking of shoes as she prowls her family’s cavernous home, spying on the household staff’s militant tasks and her parents’ seemingly stony cohabitation. This passage proceeds with an almost Kubrickian elliptical detachment, as though Beatrix is growing up in a child’s version of the astral apartment Dave Bowman grows old in once he goes beyond the infinite in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Though the rendering may be stylized, no biographical sketch of Potter can be complete without acknowledging what was apparently a deep distaste for her interests and ambitions on the part of her parents. Thus, when a smile finally crosses Beatrix’s face as she sits down to draw her pet mice, the shift we make back into the world of her imagination takes on a bittersweet significance. These aren’t simply fanciful characters; they’re an escape mechanism for an emotionally neglected child. The dream world may be comforting, but it nevertheless bears traces of the Potter manor’s depressive silence.

Viewed with any amount of distance, Tales of Beatrix Potter is something of a bad object. It’s a loose collection of concepts and elements that barely coheres, but manages to engage—and even delight—in spite of what should be overwhelming flaws. To begin with, this feature-length ballet showcase is hopelessly hampered by Edzard’s massive, unwieldy costumes. World-class dancers are often confined to semi-graceful pantomime, attempting to match the music while being apparently blinded by stage lights that made them sweat so profusely “it was like dancing in the desert,” as one performer put it. 

The adaptive potential of Potter’s stories is similarly constrained by the stagebound, nonverbal storytelling, leaving only two books—The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Two Bad Mice—able to be told in full by virtue of being primarily physical stories of mischief and malevolence. Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mr. Jeremy Fisher enact only the barest outlines of their stories (each is menaced by a predator; each makes it out all right) while Peter Rabbit, whom any reasonable viewer would expect to be the star of the show, is limited to occasional cameos, hopping around aimlessly with a few leafy greens clutched in his paws.

As noted in the Los Angeles Times pre-release profile, a proper telling of Peter’s story would have required the production to simulate a leviathan Mr. McGregor, a prospect that would have tested the boundaries of both technology and audience comfort, and this issue of scale becomes its own queasy prospect as the film progresses. During the climactic romp that sees the full ensemble gather to incrementally intrude upon a country-mouse picnic, the viewer is forced to cope with the grotesque prospect of either gargantuan mice and squirrels or miniscule ducks and pigs.

Given that Tales of Beatrix Potter must be judged a mixed bag in the departments of both dance and adaptation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that later attempts at live stagings have been either “indigestible [and] unforgivable,” as the Guardian described the original 1992 staging, or “bloated [and] nauseating,” as the Financial Times described the 2010 revival. Yet the film was a critical and commercial success with enough lingering cachet to be programmed among the Criterion Channel’s first “Saturday Matinee” selections in 2019. If the production fails on stage but succeeds on screen, then, it must come down to the fact that this film represents a rare creation: a proudly stagey performance piece that was designed specifically as a movie. Rather than attempt to re-conceive a stage show as cinema, the production team set out to create a cinematic experience that evoked the traditions of the stage.

For that reason, the film’s success may be attributable less to Ashton’s choreography than to the sensibility of artistic power couple Richard Goodwin and Christine Edzard. The two co-conceived the project and share writing credit, with Goodwin additionally listed as producer, and Edzard as production and costume designer. Tales of Beatrix Potter thus represents a familial labor of love, as the pair spent a year transforming their home into a Potter workshop, hanging massive mouse tails from their banisters and picking synthetic pig hairs from their children’s meals. 

Goodwin and Edzard met during the production of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, a landmark in Shakespearean cinema for its richness of atmosphere and depth of emotion, and to direct their Potter production, they chose Zeffirelli’s editor, Reginald Mills. More significantly, Mills had edited for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during the period in which their production company, the Archers, developed the “composed film.” This production style, which involved recording the musical score during pre-production and then shooting the film to playback, guided the entire process towards what Pressburger’s grandson, director Kevin Macdonald, has described as “a single, intense, expressive end.” It was apparently a perfect fit for Mills; simultaneously a dreamy aesthete and a dispassionate craftsman, “he always used to remind me of an owl,” Powell said later, “blinking amiably and cutting ruthlessly.”

It’s tempting to look for hints of these earlier accomplishments within the DNA of Tales of Beatrix Potter. Yet despite any resemblance to the creators’ individual canons, the film is, for better or worse, largely refrenceless—or, as Paul Moody writes in EMI Films and the Limits of British Cinema, a work “without equal in British cinema.” For any flashes of aesthetic bliss carried over from Mills’ collaborations with Powell and Pressburger, it’s resolutely literal, never reaching for the sublime ecstasies conjured by the Archers’ stylized visual worlds; and for any tactile earthiness it may share with Goodwin and Edzard’s work with Zeffirelli, there is a diorama’s deliberate falseness to the Elsetree sets that resists full immersion. Tales of Beatrix Potter lacks any clear parallel, a singularity that may account for both its success at the time—it holds the title of England’s fourth-highest-grossing family film of the decade—and it’s relatively light cultural footprint.

These idiosyncrasies are particularly striking given how easy it might be for a viewer to presume they know what they’re going to get. Roger Ebert settled into his seat expecting to hate the film due to the long-standing chip on his shoulder surrounding ballet, which he described in his review as an aesthetic class resentment, a lingering echo of the movie kid who once sneered at fine-arts kids. Yet he was surprised to find himself enchanted, and granted the movie a full four stars, noting a particular admiration for the “disquieting” moments in which the production blended the civilized with the bestial. That respect for the film’s unexpected grit is echoed in the New York Times review, in which Roger Greenspun lauded the chaotic pleasures to be found in the “sequences of greatest disorder.”

Two months later, the Times ran another article ruminating on these sequences, and the tone was far less admiring. In an editorial titled “Whatever Happened to Kids’ Movies for Kids?” Benjamin DeMott paired Tales of Beatrix Potter with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, arguing that these most recent all-ages blockbusters represented a trend of filmmakers courting modern sensibilities by presuming savvy viewers who “reject committed presentations of simple goodness.” These films, he argued, seem deliberately engineered to lack classic sentimentality for fear of appearing silly, and those scenes of disorder and disquiet so admired by Greenspun and Ebert looked to DeMott more like betrayals of the Potter legacy. As these versions of the characters “abandon themselves to destructive rages,” he wrote, “the impression is that even here the producers are struggling to counter suspicions of goody-goodism.”

DeMott’s criticism misrepresents the tonal standard of Potter’s books so profoundly that I have to wonder how recently he’d revisited them prior to writing his piece. There’s a striking, if inverted, synchronicity between his assessment of the producers’ perspective and Potter’s own assessment of her work: the first draft for The Tale of Mr. Tod—which concerns the venomous rivalry between a badger and a fox, the lives of Peter Rabbit’s nieces and nephews hanging in the balance—opened with the words, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.”

Potter’s distaste for the anodyne may have played a part in her refusal to license her stories to Walt Disney, who hoped to adapt them as a follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (“It seems that a succession of figures can be joggled together to give an impression of motion,” Potter wrote to a friend. “I am not troubling myself about it”). This anecdote was raised in multiple reviews of the 2018 CGI/live-action hybrid feature Peter Rabbit, generally as evidence that Potter would have similarly disapproved of the newest adaptation. Yet that modernization, so exhaustingly dense with jokes, slapstick, and pop-chart needle drops, does make one rock-solid assessment of the Potter spirit: at the story’s nadir, as Peter gazes longingly at a portrait of his departed parents, the narrator notes that “if this were based on a different kind of storybook,” that portrait might come to life and offer him a pep talk. “But it’s not based on that kind of storybook,” the narrator concludes, and Peter’s parents stay dead.

This resolute lack of sentimentality must account for a large part of the Potter canon’s longevity, and it must thus account for why audiences keep going back to buy tickets for movies with Peter Rabbit on the poster, whether that means a sickeningly self-aware 21st-century update or an early-’70s balletic bad object. As the nostalgic trailer for Tales of Beatrix Potter suggests, that reliable box office value may come down to simple name recognition and the hope of sharing cherished stories with our children. But it seems just as likely to me that the reason these stories linger while so many of Potter’s ostensible peers have faded to literary footnotes is that underlying twist of darkness—her ability to take sturdy archetypal frameworks and carve out space for uneasy imaginings.

In a 1991 article for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, John Pennington argued that Potter’s works grow up alongside her young readers, as The Tale of Peter Rabbit’s “Arcadian fairy-tale world where giants get their comeuppance” shifts to The Tale of Mr. Tod’s “realistic world of change that is hostile on all levels.” Thus, Pennington concludes, Potter’s canon carries the overriding message “that the world is fallen, but that world is also vital.”

Given this bittersweet moral, it could be tempting to view the warmth that greeted Tales of Beatrix Potter (not to mention the “burgeoning Pottermania” it coincided with, according to the Los Angeles Times review of a Potter biography published that year) as some reflection of the painful disillusionment felt in the shadow of Manson, the midst of Vietnam, and the prelude to Watergate. I have to imagine, though, that the esteemed author would shake her head at such a conveniently simple interpretation of the world’s complexities. 

Many of Potter’s books were written in response to her own personal pain and loss: The Tale of Peter Rabbit was first composed to comfort a friend’s child debilitated by scarlet fever. Critics have viewed The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher as a coping mechanism for the shocking death of her publisher and fiancée, Norman Warne, and The Tale of Pigling Bland as a reflection of her mixed feelings after marrying William Heelis despite her lifelong insistence that she could live happily without partnership. Yet if that’s the case, her responses were strange and thorny ones—a child comforted by the story of another child punished for a close call with violent death; a grieving lover coping via the story of a frog’s near-fatal misadventure preparing for a dinner party; a reluctant wife processing her new situation by uniting two vacuous pigs in a butcher’s kitchen.

This last tale is told with relative fidelity around the midpoint of Tales of Beatrix Potter, and it’s the rare occasion in which the characters’ frozen expressions are perfectly appropriate. Pigling Bland and his beloved Pig-wig dance their pas de deux against the impressionistic shadows of ham hocks and sausages thrown by the crackling fire. Blissfully unaware of the quite likely imminent horror, they frolic and prance, kissing one another’s snouts. From an adult perspective, the story’s blend of the blithe and the Gothic can verge on revulsion, even as it purports to be a merry yarn with hints of danger and a happy ending.

In Potter’s world, these two perspectives coexist rather than clash. It would be easiest to suggest that a child’s perspective simply can’t access an adult’s more sophisticated awareness. But might it be more likely that adults forget the level of darkness they were willing to entertain as they developed their understanding of the world? I’m not sure, myself. Do you remember?