Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Mystic Mouse: Holiness in "The Tale of Despereaux"

Before you read this post I'd like you to watch the short video above. It's a trailer for the movie The Tale of Despereaux which came out in 2008, based on the excellent children's book by Kate DiCamillo. Back when the movie first came out, I thought it was a fun film--besides the usual unnessecary, annoying, and even plain absurd changes from the book. However, I realized recently that the most fundamental change the film makes is to the character of Despereaux himself. The differences are subtle but important. They distinguish the stirring, unique fairy-tale which is the book, from the faintly clichéd storyline which is the movie.
Listen to the voiceover on the trailer: "Now when it comes to being a mouse, there's a right way and a wrong way. But Despereaux can only do things his way." The movie proceeds to show a very bravado little Despereaux leaping over mousetraps, facing a cat in a gladiator-style arena, and hang-gliding on his gigantic ears. In fact, the swashbuckling, imperturbable hero portrayed in the film closely resembles the chivalrous-but-vain Reepicheep from The Chronicles of Narnia film series:
Um...yes. Definite similarities. Right down to the scarlet headgear.
But is this the real Despereaux? I invite you inside Kate DiCamillo's novel to find out.
He [Despereaux] said nothing in defense of himself. How could he? .... He was ridiculously small. His ears were obscenely large. He had been born with his eyes open. And he was sickly. He coughed and sneezed so often that he carried a handkerchief in one paw at all times. He ran temperatures. He fainted at loud noises. Most alarming of all, he showed no interest in the things a mouse should show interest in.
Except for a few points, this portrait is the stark opposite of the film Despereaux. The reasons are obvious. A sickly, fainting, meek mouse could never be the hero of a major motion picture. It simply wouldn't do. Despereaux has to survive a dungeon and escape evil rats and rescue a princess. He must be braver, stronger, bolder than the rest of his fellow mice. He must assert himself. He must demand "his own way". Right?
But the Despereaux presented in the book is not different from his mouse community by virtue of defiance. He's simply different by oblivion:
But Despereaux wasn't listening to [his brother] Furlough. He was staring at the light pouring in through the stained-glass windows of the castle. He stood on his hind legs and held his handkerchief over his heart and stared up, up, up into the brilliant light.
"Furlough," he said, "what is this thing? What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?"
"Cripes!" shouted Furlough from a far corner. "Don't stand there in the middle of the floor talking about heaven. Move! You're a mouse, not a man. You've got to scurry."
"What?" said Despereaux, still staring at the light.
But Furlough was gone.
Physically and emotionally, Despereaux is weaker than his fellow mice. He practically has no self to assert. And this is precisely what allows him so receptive to objective truth, goodness, and beauty.
This is nothing less than a symbolism of Divine grace. (Whether this was the author's explicit intention I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out it were.) From his birth, he is called to see and hear things that the other mice, in their mundane, materialistic culture, can't. Despereaux does not break the laws of mousedom by asserting his own will. Instead he is caught up, almost without his own will, in a higher world of light. Throughout the book, he draws strength from many things--love, stories, and even a bowl of soup. Not once does he draw strength from himself. He is far more a mystical, spiritual knight than a self-reliant, swashbuckling one.
But that just smacked too strong of real holiness for Universal Studios.
I'll admit, the movie did keep intact some of the book's other important themes, like the power of forgiveness. But it eroded Despereaux's unique character of saintly knight, replacing it with a stererotyped, "rugged individual" hero. So if you're hungry for a fairy-tale of true depth, spiritual insight, and timelessness--just read the book.