Chapter 27: A Tangled Web
Andy's wife Kay wrote me 'in 1977: "We have never ceased to regret that your version of "Charlotte's Web " never got made. The Hanna-Barberra version has never pleased either of us... a travesty... "
But how could such a creative disaster come about? Here's how:
Michael Campus pitched a renewed Charlotte project to Andy White, and brought it to Sagittarius for financing. Mike was a budding live- action director, hoping he could get a movie to direct from Sagittarius, but in the meantime producing Charlotte, Mike chose me to write the script and direct, immediately making Henry White nervous. I was not a Hollywood name, and I lived and worked behind the iron curtain. But Sagittarius had to accept Mike's choice, as he had brought in the property. In return for this chance, he had to take the fatal step of signing over the movie rights to Sagittarius. No one shared these ominous portents with me. I was pulsing with excitement. My first step, in November 1970, was to fly with Mike to North Brooklin, Maine, to meet E.B.White.
The flight was to Bangor, and from there by car - rugged country. We passed a house with a deceased bear hanging from a tree in the front yard. Life, survival, and death are part of the landscape.
White's house was just as you might imagine, a large, sturdy white clapboard home, far from the turgid milieu of the New Yorker magazine, for which he was still writing. He greeted Mike and me at the door, and introduced us to his infirm wife, Kay. We were made to feel at home, were fed good country food, and quickly fell into talk of spiders, pigs, rats, and barns - the stuff of Charlotte's Web. Thus began my intensive relationship with Andy White, which lasted nearly until his death. But this great writer and word-person knew nothing at all of the essentials of cinematic transformation of a book.
He had recently recorded his own voice reading Charlotte's Web in its entirety. The recording ran for three hours and twenty minutes. What Andy White basically wanted, was for us to simply put his recording on the soundtrack and illustrate it. I had been given a production limit of a 90-minute film. My first task was to gently convince him that I would be true to the essence of his book, while having the necessity of adapting it to the scenes and shots of film continuity. Andy wanted exposition by narration of his words from the book. I knew I must tell the story with action, so we were in gentle conflict, and great discretion was needed from me.
Andy loaded me with farmyard lore, and with his personally annotated copy of the book. I returned to Prague full of enthusiasm, despite the odds, and began my basic research. Henry White's Sagittarius Productions secretary, Leila Khouri, was a great help in getting me the books I needed.
If a story set in an American farm was to be produced in Prague we had to learn all the details of spiders, pigs, and barn life. These details were important; even the shape of an American handaxe differs from a European one!
Mike Campus was a bright, perceptive and sympathetic young man. I was happy to be working with him. We got along wonderfully, and had closely matched views on the project. I suppose I especially liked him because he so enthusiastically approved everything I was writing on the screenplay! He was my official approver, and of course I needed to be able to bounce everything off him as I went along. I also wanted to be able to bring Andy White into the process, so that he could be sure of our respect for his book. But almost from the beginning, this became more and more difficult.
Soon after the fanfare of the project's launch with Henry White and Edgar Bronfman, they began to ignore me. And no sooner had they assigned Mike Campus to work with me, than they whisked him away to direct a film in Denmark. This was Mike's big chance. He was torn between two attractive projects, but couldn't refuse a chance to direct his own film. (It was Zero Population Growth, with Geraldine Chaplin and Oliver Reed - The poor title sounded like a documentary, and the film sunk without a trace.)
The worst and most difficult condition I had to accept was that I was forbidden to show any of my script to the author! My correspondence with Andy had to be general, without revealing anything directly from my developing script. The handwriting on the wall was neon red, but still I soldiered on.