Chapter 28: The Charlotte Papers
Answering this, Andy both agrees with and skillfully tempers my probings. I am learning the basics from him!
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
January 12, 1971
It was generous of you to send me such a detailed report of your scheme for the picture. This afternoon I sent you a few more photographs –they were taken in Canada, but they are close to New England in form and spirit.
You said in your letter (about my script) "how I wish I had the whole thing." You have everything I wrote; there wasn't any more.
I've studied your letter very carefully and find myself in sympathy, or agreement, with most of it. I do hope, though, that you are not planning to turn "Charlotte's Web" into a moral tale. It is not that at all. It is, I think, an appreciative story, and there is quite a difference. It celebrates life, the seasons, the goodness of the barn, the beauty of the world, the glory of everything. But it is essentially amoral, because animals are essentially amoral, and I respect them, and I think this respect is implicit in the tale. I discovered, quite by accident, that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows. I discovered that there was no need to tamper in any way with the habits and characteristics of spiders, pigs, geese, and rats. No "motivation" is needed if you remain true to life and true to the spirit of fantasy. I would hate to see Charlotte turned into a "dedicated" spider: she is, if anything, more the Mehitabel type–toujours gai. She is also a New Englander, precise and disciplined. She does what she does. Perhaps she is magnifying herself by her devotion to another, but essentially she is just a trapper....
As for Templeton, he's an old acquaintance and I know him well. He starts as a rat and he ends as a rat – the perfect opportunist and a great gourmand. I devoutly hope that you are not planning to elevate Templeton to sainthood....
An aura of magic is essential, because this is a magical happening. Much can be done by music of the right kind, as when the moment arrives when communication takes place between the little girl and the animals in the barn cellar. This is truly a magical moment and should be so marked by the music. (I hear it as a sort of thrumming, brooding sound, like the sound of crickets in the fall, or katydids, or cicadas. It should be a haunting, quiet, steady sound–subdued and repetitive. )
Even more can be done by words, if you are able to use them. (You'll have to forgive me for being a word man, but that's what I am.)
In writing of a spider, I did not make the spider adapt her ways to my scheme. I spent a year studying spiders before I ever started writing the book. In this, I think I found the key to the story. I hope you will, in your own medium, be true to Charlotte and to nature in general.
My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney's. He made them dance to his tune and came up with some great creations, like Donald Duck. I preferred to dance to their tune and came up with Charlotte and Wilbur. It would be futile and unfair to compare the two approaches, but you are stuck with my scheme and will probably come out better if you go along with it. Both techniques are all right, each in its own way, but I have a strong feeling that you can't mix them. It just comes natural to me to keep animals pure and not distort them or take advantage of them.
Interdependence? I agree that the film should be a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung. But I think it would be quite untrue to suggest that barnyard creatures are dependent on each other. The barn is a community of rugged individualists, everybody mildly suspicious of everybody else, including me. Friendships sometimes develop, as between a goat and a horse, but there is no sense of true community or cooperation. Heaven forfend! Joy of life, yes. Tolerance of other cultures, yes. Community, no.
I just want to add that there is no symbolism in "Charlotte's Web." And there is no political meaning in the story. It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there, winter and summer, spring and fall, good times and bad times, with the garrulous geese, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, and the sameness of sheep.
K sends her best to you and Zdenka.