Chapter 27: A Tangled Web
To ALEXANDER LINDEY [North Brooklin, Me.] May 24,1967
The purpose of the "right of approval" clause is two-fold: it should protect me from a motion picture version of "Charlotte's Web" that violates the spirit and meaning of the story, and it should protect the Hubleys from obstructive behavior of an author. The movie will be their creation, not mine, and they will naturally want to get on with it in the way they feel it should go. I believe they are sympathetic with and agreeable to my desire to have a look at the screenplay, see sketches of the principal characters, and hear the principal voices. This shouldn't be either difficult or expensive.
I want the chance to edit the script wherever anything turns up that is a gross departure or a gross violation. I also would like to be protected against the insertion of wholly new material - songs, jokes, capers, episodes. I don't anticipate trouble of this sort; the Hubleys have already expressed to me in a letter (as well as verbally) their desire to produce a faithful adaptation, and I believe them to be sincere in this.
This approval business is sensitive, though. Artistic temperaments and pride can easily get on a collision course. In the elaborate papers sent me by Jap Gude, for instance, it says
"Owner shall have the right of approval, not to be unreasonably withheld. " (Italics mine.) I don't know at what point a man's opinion, or stricture, becomes "unreasonable." What may seem reasonable to me may well seem unreasonable to the Hubleys. This is the joker. We will just have to work it out between us as best we can.
I will give you an example of what I call a "gross" violation. In my book, Charlotte dies. If, in the screenplay, she should turn up alive at the end of the story in the interests of a happier ending, I would consider this a gross violation, and I would regard my disapproval as reasonable.
Good luck! Andy
(From "Letters of E.B.White - Harper - pages 549-550)
It is amazing that here White writes precisely of the rights of approval he should have in any film adaptation of his work, yet three years later, when he signed with Sagittarius, he settled only for the right to approve the model of Charlotte. Nothing else! The letter to Milton Greenspan, may explain the difference. The Hubleys were signing for film rights without yet having financial backing. In 1970 Sagittarius was paying him "a lot of money," and so he acquiesced to whatever they demanded.
To MILTON GREENSTEIN [North Brooklin, Me.] November 17, 1970
It was good to talk to you. I have signed the four copies of the "Charlotte's Web" agreement with Sagittarius, and they are enclosed. Thanks for all your work and for straightening me out last night on the phone, and may good luck go with both of us. And send me a bill. This involves a lot of money, so make the bill in proportion - or, as we writers would say, big.
The director, Gene Deitch, who was here Sunday and whom I got on with fine, listened to a fragment of my recording of the book, and it is possible that he may decide to use my voice in narration. Deitch is American-born, but lives in Prague with a Czech wife... He has had 25 years in cartoon film production, worked with UPA, and has scooped up many honors in his field... I feel fairly happy about Deitch - happy as I can ever be in never-never land, which still gives me the shakes.
(From "The Letters of EB White," Harper Page 608).
Note the line, "this involves a lot of money." That line possibly sealed my fate.) So how did this brilliant writer and good guy get suckered into sacrificing what is perhaps his greatest creation?