“On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.“
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
I’m very sorry if you’ve ever had the unfortunate duty of sitting through a screening of Universal Pictures’ The Lorax.
Like most Dr. Seuss books, the fable is best left on ink and paper, or a concise television special, but also like most Dr. Seuss books, it could not escape the coin-twirling knuckles of Hollywood executives. So we all lost.
I’m not sorry if you had the relatively quotidian experience of viewing The Little Prince. I describe it with the word quotidian rather than mundane, firstly because quotidian’s etymology stems from Saint-Exupéry’s native French, but also because The Little Prince is a far better movie than The Lorax and therefore deserves elevated vocabulary.
Like most fables, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince does not take more than an evening to read and thus encounters the same puzzle as The Lorax when confronted with the prospect of film adaptation: how to extend the runtime. For films of vastly different caliber, The Lorax and The Little Prince sport a startlingly similar structure in three key ways:
Bring Forth the Children
Both films decided to project the lessons of their respective stories through the eyes of invented protagonists.
In Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, The Once-ler tells us the story of his encounter with the little orange creature who speaks for the trees. A young boy enters the narrative just long enough to catch the seed of the last Truffula Tree. And that’s it.
In Universal’s The Lorax, this unnamed, universal kid becomes Ted, a kid who lives in a plastic town and wants to get a girlfriend by finding a real tree.
In Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, principal characters include the Little Prince, Aviator Saint-Exupéry, and various planetary inhabitants.
In Netflix’s The Little Prince, the main character becomes an overscheduled little girl. Other invented characters include her mother, a police officer, and the principal of an exclusive preparatory school (Werth Academy, get it? Get it?).
Both of these new characters are the same age as the target audience, and both serve the same purpose: Show the morals and themes of the original fable applied in someone’s life.
With the addition of new characters come new plot lines. And with new plot lines comes new territory. And with new territory comes…trespassing.
There are some places you just don’t go. In the entirety of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, not once does the Once-ler show his face. We see eyes through a wall crack. We see fingers dropping a Truffula seed. But we do not see a face. Never a face.
Ugh, until now.
This affects the story’s impact enormously. Because if we can’t see the Once-ler, we don’t actually know who he is. Which means he could be anyone. He could be a far-off businessman, one of your parents’ friends, or a distant relative of your teacher.
He could be you.
Which, of course, was Dr. Seuss’s point all along. We don’t get to be the Lorax. We might have a chance to be the little boy. However, we will likely find ourselves struggling not to become a real-life Once-ler, and Dr. Seuss sends us a colorful, rhyming fable to prevent that terrible, terrible fate.
Creating a character to embody the Once-ler and giving him a face and voice shifts all responsibility and blame to somebody else, effectively erasing the weight from the parable.
Similarly, The Little Prince also breaks an unspoken rule: The Little Prince becomes an…an…
Much of The Little Prince (the book) considers how foolish adults can be. To its immense credit, the film brings to life Saint-Exupéry’s original words and drawings in the form of the Aviator’s old notes. The opening even remains the same: a drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor misidentified by every adult as a hat. The stories and drawings are turned into the Aviator’s memories rather than the main event, and serve to propel the plot for our modern-day protagonist. This all works.
But instead of leaving it there and letting The Little Prince be our guide, the film insists on trampling his image and instead brings the little girl—our audience’s proxy—in to save him.
Purists can and should forgive The Little Prince for trading fidelity for a modern-flavored plot framing device. Copying a story line for line and image for image often doesn’t translate well to the screen, and film does not philosophize as well as text. Film almost always needs a tangible kind of stakes to latch onto, like What if The Prince Forgot?
But seeing the trod-upon, has-been
Little Prince Mr. Prince living under the thumb of the Businessman he once encountered on an inconsequential asteroid still doesn’t sit well. It feels much like the prospect of a movie about a little girl happening upon a weeping Calvin who, in his thirties, works at a pitiless gas station as Hobbes decomposes in some forlorn dumpster for the girl to find.
Both stories insist on their young protagonist saving a legend everyone else has forgotten. It’s a good concept, as both original works are far older than their target audience. However, this tactic does irrevocably change the message of the stories. Instead of “Fable about a Serious Life Thing; take it as you wish,” we get “Young Person Saves the Day thanks to a Fable about a Serious Life Thing.”
Solidifying the Ending
Both The Lorax and The Little Prince leave their readers uneasy. The final page of The Lorax gives us a tiny seed of hope, yes, but we’re still in a barren wasteland with no finite promise of redemption.The Once-ler’s final warning pierces the reader, not the boy. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Dr. Seuss challenges us to complete the ending of his story.
Likewise, The Little Prince leaves us not quite sure how to feel. The Prince lets a snake bite him so he can return to his planet, as the snake has promised he can send people back “from whence they came.” The Prince is nervous and still a bit scared of the snake, but because he wants to return to his rose, he takes the plunge and tells Saint-Exupéry that if his body is left behind, it just means it was too much weight to make the trip. Saint-Exupéry stays with him and sees the Prince fall to the ground “without a sound.” He initially thinks the Prince died, but changes his mind when he never finds a body. We take his word for it, but we don’t see the Prince again. We don’t know if he made up with his rose. We don’t know if he ever saw his friend the fox again. We have reasonable hope, but like the reasonable hope of Unless, that’s all.
The two films can’t help giving audiences a bit more closure than that. We find out what the boy does with the Truffula seed. We discover what befalls the Prince and his Rose in the future. We get to decide less, but we know.
Do the films work, in the end?
I won’t apologize for calling The Lorax an appalling massacre. One could say it looks pretty, but I doubt it convicted anyone to protect the environment the film purported to care about. It had far more issues than we have the time or stamina to discuss today.
The Little Prince comes much closer to success.The difference is love. The stop motion sequences depicting the Prince’s travels are fantastic and stylistically original. The music complements the tale perfectly. Despite the modern animation in the sequences with the young girl, the film makes the effort to make Saint-Euxpéry’s original art integral to the plot.
Both films employ a story-within-a-story framing device featuring a young child. However, The Little Prince changes nothing about the source material (though it excludes a few asteroid encounters), whereas The Lorax inserts Once-ler family backstory, halfhearted comedy, and Bar-ba-loot waterfall escapades that eclipse whatever moral the original story hoped to suggest. All of The Little Prince‘s extra minutes come from its characters reacting to the original work, rather than expanding the original work itself. In short, The Little Prince adds padding rather than stuffing.
Although the two studios expanded their little stories using the same techniques, the Little Prince treats its source material with reverence. Still, it remains a mediocre movie because it diluted the exceptional with the conventional.
Media Credit: Universal Pictures, Onyx Films, Orange Studio, Kaibou Productions