Chapter 28: The Charlotte Papers
Here is the complete documentation of possibly my greatest creative loss. But my loss was nothing compared to what befell E.B. "Andy" White. Letters from him and his wife indicate the depressing effect the debacle had on his health. I know one thing for sure. No one ever saw the storyboard we created. No one rejected it. It was irrelevant to the powers that ignored it.
Charlotte began spinning with all eight legs. Right off the bat, Andy White started sending me some wonderful material. I can never be sure that he would have accepted my screenplay of his book; he was obviously put off by what little he saw of my preliminary development. But I believe that if only I was allowed to work with him personally, on the basis of our positive personal relationship, that the small conflicts could have been worked out, compromise could have been arrived at, and a far truer version of his work would have reached the screen. Here are the letters that tell why this didn't happen. They are all authentic. I have the originals on file. They are not modified, but they are excerpted for space. Nothing is omitted that would change the meaning or intent, only personal small talk is left out. My short notes between the letters will provide background information. The letters are chronological, so you can get an idea of how the project developed.
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
December 20, 1970
This morning I unearthed a script I began, years back, when it seemed as though CHARLOTTE'S WEB was going to be filmed live. I remember when you were here your saying that perhaps a good way to start the film would be with the birth of Wilbur in the hoghouse. That's the way this thing starts, so I'll send it along with this letter, on the chance that there might be something in it that proves useful.
If you do start with the birth of Wilbur, I can give you a quick rundown of what actually happens at a farrowing– I've been there. The sow (enormous) lies on her side. She does not thrash about. The farmer sits nearby. As each tiny pig arrives, he picks it up and puts it in a box, for warmth. He ends up with a boxful of pigs. They are practically noiseless at this stage. After the sow has passed the afterbirth, she is still on her side. Sows have two rows of teats, usually ten in all---five and five. This means that when she is on her side there is an upper level and a lower level. She sometimes has to hitch herself over more onto her back in order to expose the lower level for the convenience of her children. When she is ready to feed the young ones, she utters short grunts in a low-pitched voice. The little pigs get the message, and the farmer ladles them out of the box. They instinctively stay together and line up like a squad of miniature soldiers. The corporal pays a visit to his mother's nose, where he delivers a short speech of encouragement, emphasizing the beauty of breasts and of milk. Then he returns to the squad, and pretty soon there is an assault on the mother, the young pigs rooting busily at her breasts as though they were digging for truffles. No milk as yet. Then the pigs start milling about, each seeking an advantageous position and the Teat Supreme. The forward teats on a sow are more productive than the hind ones---hence that old American phrase, "suck hind tit." After a while, with the sow still emitting her come-on grunts, the pigs settle into a formation, each, pig with his mouth around a faucet, the pigs of the upper level literally on top of the pigs of the lower level. A novice, viewing this happy scene, might suppose that the nursing has begun and that the pigs are getting nourished. Not so. But all of a sudden, as though a switch had been thrown, the milk starts to flow and the pigs sag back on their haunches and receive the gift of life.
Most farrowing pens have a low guard rail around the perimeter---about a foot above the floor and a foot out from the walls. This lessens the chance of the sow's crushing a pig when she takes it into her head to lie down.
I think you are right that the picture should have a nostalgic tone and a New England look. I also love your idea of showing a spider spinning her web as the introductory material. If you have any difficulty finding a good web-making film, Yale might put you onto one, because Yale is the bailiwick of that great arachnologist Alexander Petrunkevitch. (He may be dead, but alive or dead, he is top man in the spider world.)
I've had a gloomy time lately, with a lot of head trouble. I went to Waterville for a neurological exam and submitted to a "brain scan," which is a nuclear test and made me feel a whole lot worse. Twice a day I got out to the barn and put my head in traction, using a boat anchor, a length of clothesline, and a halter. I sometimes think a hangman's noose would be quicker and easier, but I don't know how to tie one.
We've had plenty of wintry weather and a good cover of snow. And I must leave you now and begin untangling last year's strings of Christmas tree lights. I still haven't rounded up any pictures of New England scenes for you but will try to get going on it.
Best regards and good hunting in 1971.