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Published: Friday, 2/23/2007

Many feature films about children's authors make sure their subjects are scrubbed and polished

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter. Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter.
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There's a tale often told about the kindly, matronly children's author Beatrix Potter that didn't make it into the new biopic Miss Potter.

If she had been famous for writing adult books, it would be impossible to imagine such a revealing morsel of kid-lit gossip getting passed over.

But Potter, who died in 1943, is best remembered for The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the gentle, water-colored illustrations of bunnies and ducks she painted into her books. Indeed, after you see the movie - with its pastoral English greens and Oscar-ready portraits of our heroine's blissed-out expression, the wind catching her face - it's hard imagining it was even considered.

The story goes like this:

A fan journeyed to her home.

Potter lived on bucolic Hill Top farm, in the English countryside of Lakeland, far north of London. Years before, she had bought up the surrounding acres with her Peter Rabbit profits; she insisted the land be preserved, and spent her days traipsing those picturesque grounds, retiring to her 17th-century farmhouse on occasion to pen a new tale of rude squirrels and wandering swine.

The fan happened upon her and nervously inquired: "Pardon me, but are you Beatrix Potter?"

"Yes," she said. "I am."

The fan relaxed.

"Now shove off."

Did it happen? Maybe.

Should it matter? Possibly.

But more to the point: Why doesn't it matter to Miss Potter, which shows tomorrow and Sunday in sneak previews at Cinema De Lux Maumee and opens nationally March 9, that its subject was never perfect? Why is the film, as with the recent Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan writer J.M. Barrie, so anxious to find its author guilty of nothing more egregious than being a fussbudget with an imagination? Why, when it comes to children's authors, do we demand to get plaster saints?

Who let them off the hook?

We did, actually.

•

The usual criticism lobbed at biographies of famous writers - movie biographies or otherwise - is that genius tends to get boiled down to an epic bout of vomiting and womanizing, with the occasional psychotic episode to break things up.

In the past few years alone, the highest profile films about writers have given us insufferable snobs (The Squid and the Whale), carousing drunks (Ask the Dust, with Colin Farrell), pathetic drunks who mean well (Sideways), manic depressives (The Hours), and solitary neurotic wrecks (Adaptation). In Infamous, the second film in as many years to document the relationship between Truman Capote and the murderers of In Cold Blood, Capote has sex with his subject Perry Smith.

In the more interior Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman's biggest lapses are sins against journalism - but it's a mortal offense, the assumption being Capote traded his soul for the chance to write one last classic.

There's a fair reason that movies about writers, even the most intellectual and insightful writers, come off like outtakes from The Jerry Springer Show. Movies about writers face technical hurdles - namely, movies are visual and writing is tedious, private, and exists in your head.

"There's a mystery about creative writing," Stephen King wrote last fall in the Washington Post. "But it's a boring mystery."

The same holds true for films about nearly any creative work - which is why, no matter the art (painting, composing, etc.), the artist will be strung out. Nobody really wants to see a story about an artist who stays out of trouble, leads a substance-free day, keeps a fulfilling home life, never knows unbelievable tragedy, and delivers a masterpiece.

At least, I never thought so.

With Miss Potter and Finding Neverland, we see a new set of cliches developing. These are portraits of (mainly) well-adjusted human beings who happen to be writers. Children's authors, of course, are adults leading adult lives. But somehow, because their audience drinks from plastic sippy cups and gets a ride to youth soccer, their personalities are as agreeable as their prose; their biographies are not about their messy downfall and moral degradation but "the transcendent power of the imagination."

Which is too bad, because of course there's a dark side to famous kiddie-lit authors, just as there's a dark side to anyone - indeed, because the audience of a children's author is children, the smallest, grimiest discrepancy is weirdly compelling and resonates with all the more mystery. Yet even when evidence is right in the face, these films look away with too much discretion.

So, decorum it is.

Finding Neverland tells the story of how Barrie, an insistent goofball of a dreamer, met a young mother, befriended her sons, and found the inspiration for his classic, Peter Pan. Never mind that it reduces a prolonged bout of cancer to a "very nasty cough" and vanquishes entire sons for the sake of narrative tidiness. It also swats away the accusations of sexual misconduct that followed Barrie most of his life. And even if the relationship between the boys and Barrie was what it appeared (and he was a sexless man, in his marriage as well), the film dismisses the impact of the author's emotional immaturity (and the impact of Peter Pan) on his young friends.

He was magical.

Not a talented crackpot.

I won't presume to psychoanalyze the man, but could he not be both nuts and talented? Is it that much of a betrayal of the character to dwell on the tenuousness of his mental state? Likewise, throughout Miss Potter, Beatrix (played by Renee Zellweger) converses with drawings of hedgehogs. She confides in them, berates them, and greets them every day. (Not just when she's alone, either.) But any question of whether Beatrix is maybe the teensiest bit disturbed - at the least, severely lonely - gets batted away by an insanely jaunty soundtrack. She is not delusional. She is creative.

She's cute.

Actually, movies about famous authors aren't all that routine, but expect the kid-lit biopic to hold traction at your multiplex. The subject is a demographic dream, familiar to entire families, primed for award seasons - and if the authors' works have been familiar for decades, they're probably beloved by generations. So when they get around to the J.K. Rowling biopic, don't expect the tale of how a down-and-out single mom (and future Harry Potter author) became shrewd keeper to a multibillion dollar empire. Expect the story of how a single mom living on state assistance, her personal life a near melodrama, tapped her imagination and enchanted not only a generation of kids, but their parents as well.

When they get around to E.B. White, will the focus be on his years at the New Yorker magazine? Or his Maine retreat, his love for old farmhouses, and authorship of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little? One guess. Yet in the new reissue of The Letters of E.B. White (HarperCollins, $35), there's an exchange between a grade-school teacher and White that reveals a remarkable lack of sentiment toward his creations.

The teacher's students want to know if there will be a sequel to Stuart Little. White's reply is curt: No, the character is done for me. Thanks for the correspondence.

Closer to home, if the life story of Mildred Benson, the late writer of the first Nancy Drew mysteries and a Blade reporter for decades, eventually makes it to the big screen, will Millie's own somewhat curt nature make the cut along with her many accomplishments and adventures?

•

The odd thing about Miss Potter is how committed it is to refraining from anything that might strike anyone as indecorous, be it sex or savvy. In the film, for example, we never learn what her publishers think about having to deal with a woman who talks to cartoons. Beatrix, in fact, is startled when they tell her she's rich.

But according to the new biography by Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (St. Martin's $30), Potter, daughter of a wealthy London family, was far from naive when it came to business. Almost from the 1901 debut of Peter Rabbit, she had been a diligent forerunner of marketing tie-ins, licensing her watercolor bunnies for everything from mugs and blankets to wallpaper.

Have we lost our own imaginations so completely we need to believe the creator of a work of wonderment and innocence must be an innocent to pull it off? Or are we talking the Tom Cruise Effect here - a modern malady that makes us unwilling to distinguish between a work of art and the person who made it?

Last fall, on Halloween night, I went to see Lemony Snicket read from his latest (and last) installment of the Series of Unfortunate Events books. Snicket (who is actually writer Daniel Handler) wore a shockingly yellow shirt. He invited kids on stage to read with him then he insulted them. He pulled at them, yanked at their arms, (gently) tossed them around the stage. He played the part of the children's book narrator - that is, an adult who can barely tolerate inquisitive kids. He said he was not, in fact, Lemony and would not sign any books but stamp and date each.

The kids loved it. If he were a nice guy, you imagined, they would have been disappointed.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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