I knew from the moment I started my Middle Grade Reread Challenge, I wanted to end with Tale of Despereaux so I might watch the animated film to see what comparisons could be made. Of course, Tale of Despereaux is not a long book–at 270 pages, it’s actually the shortest book of the challenge–and I was curious to see how they were going to transform the perfect but short book into a full-length film. (If they can turn Green Eggs & Ham into a kid’s TV series and The Hobbit into three films, I suppose I shouldn’t be concerned, but then, we all saw how The Hobbit trilogy turned out.)
Now, I can’t reiterate it enough: if you haven’t read this book before, or if you haven’t read it in a long time, you probably should. It’s one of those really wholesome books that is a nice palate cleanser considering all of the… not-wholesome things going on in the world right now. But I can’t really do this post without going into some of the finer details for both movie and film, so warning: spoilers abound.
As I said, Tale of Despereaux is not long enough to do a wholly faithful adaptation to the books and still create a good movie. Some changes were going to have to be made in order to maintain the feel of the book while accepting that it was a completely different medium of art. That said, the movie felt like it was barely the same narrative at all.
The good news is, watching the movie helped me put my finger on what it was about the book that made it shine the way that it does. As a whole, it’s a matter of theme. The book showed that actions have consequences and that words hold weight; the movie chose instead to focus on the importance of chivalry and accepting responsibility for wrong-doing. Below, I’ll detail the five elements they changed to shift the thematic elements.
This is one of the two vital changes to the narrative. In the book, Roscuro and Despereaux are parallel characters. Each behave in a way that is unbecoming of their species: Roscuro, a rat, finds that he is in love with the light, and Despereaux, a mouse, finds that he wants to be a brave and noble knight. Roscuro’s quest to enjoy things filled with light (not just leaving the dungeon, but the act of love that surrounded the idea of soup) resulted in the Queen’s death and Pea screaming “rat” in a way that made him realize that everyone believe rats to be vile and ugly, and if they’re going to think it, he may as well be vile and ugly to get his revenge. Despereaux, on the other hand, falls in love with Princess Pea and falls in love with her. He’s allowed his lovely interaction because Pea thinks mice are cute and good. The two rodents’ respective arcs close at the loss of both of their tails, an event that is paired with Roscuro realizing he did wrong, and Pea doing an act of empathetic kindness.
Now, Roscuro was still responsible for the Queen’s soup incident in the movie, because that is one unchangeable part of the story. But he was not a rat born in darkness dreaming of light. Instead, he was a sailor rat visiting a kingdom well known for its soups. He knew people who were not afraid of rats, and, just as important, he did not feel like an outcast. When he tumbles into the dungeons following the Queen’s death, of course he wishes he could leave. Of course he hates the dark. All he had wanted was to smell the soup, and he was cast into a completely different world for it.
In a story about consequences, it’s no surprise that the narrative unfolds backwards, layer by layer. It begins with Despereaux, the mouse that wanted to be a knight, cast into the dungeon by his fellow mice because he was strange. Then it went back in time, to tell the tale of Roscuro, the rat with light in his heart, his heart breaking by the ugly way the princess Pea spoke the word “rat,” and it not growing back just right. Then, it went back even further, with Miggery Sow, a girl sold by her father for a table cloth and a chicken, so abused she lost her hearing yet all she wanted was to be a princess. Brought to the castle to be a servant, she winds up being put in charge of brining Gregory the Jailor his meals, and it is in this way all the stories converge.
The unfolding of events is not something that would be easy to imitate in a movie, as the visual story-telling is often done best if told in chronological order. I had hoped they’d find some way to keep it, but was unsurprised when they compressed the timeline so it was more linear. The movie started with Roscuro’s arrival in Dor and the incident with the soup, then moved to Despereaux with the occasional touching base with Roscuro in the dungeon. They introduced Miggery Sow when it was her turn to start moving the plot, and continued to weave her scenes with those of Roscuro and Despereaux. It was all very straightforward, and, to be frank, uninspired.
Ratworld vs. Mouseworld
It is true that the book depicted a small (in size, if not in population) settlement of mice within the castle, and that there was a Mouse Council that dealt with any manner of issues. But the rats were very isolated in their dungeons. They were a large population of rodents that lived in the same place and ganged up on the humans when the situation allowed, but mostly, they spent their time alone, or in the case of Roscuro and Boticelli, with one or two fellow rats. Their main delight was in messing with the prisoners left in the depths of the dungeons.
The movie, however, made an entire small city for the rats to live in, dark and gloomy and primal though it was. The rats would gather food in raiding parties and bring it back to the city, where the entire community would just attack the heap in one huge animalistic rush. It was meant to be a stark contrast to the civilization of the mice, although the isolated way of living for the book-rats honestly could have served nearly the same purpose, and really just changed the nature of the isolation for Roscuro.
Boticelli the Villain
There was no overarching villain within the book. Boticelli tried to help Roscuro act more rat-like, showing him how to be cruel to the prisoners by promising them redemption before stealing what little they had left. Boticelli was what a rat was supposed to be, the book said, and Roscuro was the one who couldn’t do it right. When Roscuro kidnapped the princess and tricked Miggery Sow, Boticelli urged him on, but the second Roscuro began to hesitate, Boticelli and the other rats left, claiming the taste of the princess would no longer be as good because Pea and Roscuro had forgiven one another.
And this serves as the other major change to the movie adaptation. In the book, it is Roscuro and no one else that is responsible for the kidnapping of the princess, and, as a result, he is the one who gets to decide their fate. The movie instead places Boticelli as leader of the Ratworld, an ominous figure that insists Roscuro leave the path of the “good.” Roscuro still brings the princess to the dungeons, but her fate is ultimately placed in Boticelli’s paws, as the entire rat population wants to make a meal out of her, and Roscuro’s sudden doubt is not enough in and of itself to save her.
Gregory the Jailor and Miggery Sow
Gregory the Jailor in the books is just that, the jailor. He meets an untimely end when Roscuro chews through the rope that helps him navigate through the dungeon’s maze. Yet, prior, he is a figure central to all three characters. Roscuro tried to gnaw on Gregory’s rope, and Gregory lit a match in his face, making Roscuro crave the light. Gregory also saved Despereaux from the rats, helping him return to the relative safety of the kitchens in exchange for a story. And Miggery Sow was introduced to Roscuro when she went to bring Gregory his dinner meal. He is a force to be reckoned with, stern with the rats, yet a little less so with everyone else.
Movies often merge together many different characters to make the plot lines simpler for them to depict, so turning Gregory into Mig’s father isn’t exactly groundbreaking. However, before he went to the castle, he gave Mig to her Uncle (who, in the books, was not really her uncle). The Uncle character is shown to be unpleasant, although the movie never addresses why Mig is practically deaf (from all the clouts to the ears that Uncle gave her), why her desire to be princess is so strong (because no one ever cared what Miggery Sow wants), or why she was brought to the castle (because Uncle “owned” Mig, and that’s illegal). And, of course, because they made Gregory Mig’s father, Gregory does not get lost forever in the maze, but rather realizes Mig’s identity and they become a family again.
Conclusion: Clashing Themes
All of these changes amount to a starkly different story being told. The book essentially details a story about characters that are belittled all their lives until they decide to do something about it, and presents them with a great and noble character (Despereaux) that prevents them from truly committing to the road of evil. Despereaux does not help save Princess Pea; his presence (and the smell of soup, that thing which has the power to bring together all manor of people) simply gives Roscuro a chance to be heard, and Pea, a chance to make amends.
So, of course, apologies and remorse are incredibly important elements in the book. Yet there is a certain finesse that a written narrative can provide that a visual one cannot. Despereaux forgave his father for the part he played in sending Despereaux to the dungeons, but not because his father felt so incredibly remorseful (although he certainly did). He forgave his father to save his own heart, the text says (ch. 40). Princess Pea offered Roscuro some soup in the banquet hall not because he had turned good and was asking for forgiveness; she did it because she empathize with him, and to offer to share soup with him was the only way to save her own heart.
The movie takes a hold of that idea of apologies and makes it the central theme of the entire visual story. Worse, it makes the same mistake that is so often made: it tries to tell the viewer that there is power in apologies, and that simply saying “I’m sorry” makes everything right again. The same thing happened with the Moana film. I thought that was a beautiful story, but Maui really messed up when it came to stealing the Heart of Te Fiti. Despite how much it wounded Te Fiti, all he had to do to is apologize, and suddenly it was all happy endings for both Maui and Te Fiti. It really cheapened the ending.
In a similar vein, the movie version of Mig’s father cries about how sorry he was, and to placate him, Mig says “It’s alright.” The king apologizes to thin air, standing before a closed window that looked out on a street crowded with people hoping for soup, and the drab clouds begin to break and sunlight shines through. Except, it’s not alright, because no one really seems willing to address the actual damage that they caused. When Mig says “it’s alright,” she says it because that’s what her father wants to hear, but the viewer has no indication that Mig says “it’s alright” because she, like Despereaux, is trying to save her own heart. And the king does not even speak to any single person. He does not apologize to his daughter for being absent, or to the people for denying them the soup that had brought them all together.
In the end, it just makes the story sad, because it takes away the thematic power of the narrative. It isn’t telling the viewer that if they’ve been wounded, it is ultimately in their own power to choose how they let their heart heal. It tells them they must wait for the other person to feel remorseful, and hope that is enough to mend their wounded heart. I do not wish to say that the movie was bad. Simply, it took away that which made the book so pure and powerful.