Chapter 28: The Charlotte Papers
Two obvious facts were that my contract with Bill Snyder had ended in 1967, and that Snyder owed so much money to Czechoslovak Filmexport that he was virtually run out of town, and could only continue to produce if he paid off his enormous debt, and paid cash in advance for any future production. When Henry White, wanting to check out the production conditions in Prague met with Snyder, Bill immediately saw gold, as he did in 1968 with Morton Schindel. He quickly began to weave his own web. Henry White immediately blamed Campus for getting him into what appeared to be a troubled scene, and started to undermine our project. I was apparently still in, but the Production in Prague looked less and less likely. Mike had to convey to me two pieces of bad news. 1. I was forbidden to show any more of my script or discuss my treatment with E.B. White, and 2. Mike was leaving me and going to Copenhagen to direct a film. I dispatched a registered letter to Henry White, pointing out that I would henceforth be working in the dark, with no feedback from the author, and no counseling or approvals from my producer! I pointed out to him that the studio was turning away work from the following year in order to make room for Charlotte. This was the curt reply:
SAGITTARIUS PRODUCTIONS INC.
375 PARK AVE. - NEW YORK, N.Y. 10022 - 758-4530
HENRY S. WHITE cable SAGITTAR, N.Y.
president May 3, 1971
Mr. Gene Deitch
Prague 1, Czechoslovakia
This is in response to your "registered" letter of 26th April.
It is suggested that you continue working with your sketch artists on the
storyboard with the laudable intention of completing these elements by the agreed upon date. We shall look forward to seeing it
We think you and the studio are making a mistake in rejecting or delaying all other projects through the end of 1972 because of the expectation that "Charlotte's Web" will be produced in Prague.
To date we have complied with all our contractual obligations and made all the payments which have come due. We cannot and will not be rushed into a final production commitment at this time. If this means that you and the studio wish to make other commitments, we can only urge you to do so.
We do not wish to commit ourselves any further to Czechoslovak Filmexport at this time. Our major objective is to keep all of our options open. It may well turn out that with this material in hand, we could develop a satisfactory arrangement on this side of the Iron Curtain.
We hope all of this is clear.
Cordially, (Henry White)
Crystal clear. And I loved that "cordially." Not only must I not show any more of my adaptation development to Andy, but I must not even tell him I must not! Andy was confused, and he developed a fear that I was going to turn his book into a musical. He did not know that I was ordered by Sagittarius to create songs. But my songs were to be background, voice-over songs, and not sung by the characters. My hands were effectively tied.
Gene Deitch Mostecká 273/B Prague 1, Czechoslovakia
Mike sort of panicked when I told him that I had sent you a few trial pages of script, and he asked me not to mail the answer I had written you,(in answer to yours of March 10th and llth.)
In the meantime, Mike himself is having some pretty hard times on his other (live-action) feature film, and I feel rather uncomfortable about being out of touch with you. The fact is that your comments and criticisms were extremely helpful to me, and as a result o£ them, I started over again.
Now I have finished the entire screenplay, and am working on the visual storyboard version. I honestly believe that I have been true to the meaning and spirit of your book. The fact is that I love CHAPLOTTE'S WEB. You may or may not be able to picture the problem of adapting a book, however perfect in its own terms, to the complex medium of film.
Only one fact will help you to understand the basic starting problem: Your own sure and true reading of the book onto phonograph records takes 3 hours and twenty minutes, give or take a groove or two. Our film must hold to a running time of just 90 minutes. This, plus the inherent nature of the motion picture medium, require adaptations which are difficult to explain to an author. The aim however, in my view, is not to mimic the book, nor to create a substitute for the book, but to illuminate the book, supplement the book, and at best to lead people (who haven't) to want to read the book, to hopefully get more out of reading. Or, having read the book, to help them appreciate the book all the more; to underline what is in the book, and not to add something unnecessarily which is not in the book. At least, those are my aims.
I hate to spoil your image of me, but the fact is that I am a word man too. I love words, and I know that part of this story of yours is to show the power and effectiveness of the written word. Your words are beautiful, and I have maintained as many of them as I possibly could.
I imagine that what you would really like is if somehow your whole book, word for word could be transferred to the screen, just as you transferred it to those record grooves. But Andy, I am sure you would be disappointed in such a film if you saw it. What I aim to do is to use a combination of your words, with images) movement, juxtapositions, music and sounds, to project the essence of the book, within our financial and technical means. No film can ever realize a 100% of our dreams in planning it, but what is important is our aim. If it is high enough, even if we fall somewhat short, we are still a good ways off the ground.
Let me assure you that I as intensely aware of my responsibility to all those readers who love and know your book line by line, I have tried, and will try to maintain all the love that is in it. There will be no disneyfylng, no betrayal of character (Incidentally Avery, is definitely not scratched!)
Dear Andy, have faith, keep well. The last thing I would wish to do is to add to your physical or mental distress. Be assured that I will always remove my hat when entering the barn!
Love conquers all, (well, sometimes.) Gene