The film that taught me that the book is usually better.

The film that taught me that the book is usually better.

Revisiting Childhood Movies Part IX:

The Secret of NIMH

  • Director:  Don Bluth
  • Writer:  Don Bluth  /  John Pomeroy  /  Gary Goldman  /  Will Finn  (from the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien)
  • Producer:  Don Bluth  /  John Pomeroy  /  Gary Goldman
  • Stars:  Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacob, Dom DeLuise, Peter Strauss (voices only)
  • Studio:  MGM/UA
  • Award Nominations:  none from groups I track
  • Length:  82 min
  • Genre:  Kids  (Animated)
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Release Date:  2 July 1982
  • Box Office Gross:  $14.66 mil  (#52  –  1982)
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Best Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Notables:  Best Animated Voice Performance (John Carradine)
  • First Watched:  on HBO when it first came to cable
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  10-15

As a Kid:  The Secret of NIMH was an extremely formative film for me as a kid, not because of what happened when I watched it, but because of what happened afterwards.  This film was released in the summer of 1982 and probably came to HBO sometime in 1983, which is when I would have first watched it.  I took to it immediately.  What was it about that worked so well for me?  If I had to guess anything, I would guess that is the swords.  Towards the end, the main hero rat, Justin, and the main villain, Jenner, face off in a sword duel.  Swords were already big for me.  After all, I had already read Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, liked the animated versions of The Hobbit and Return of the King.  Even Star Wars, my favorite film, had lightsabers.  So a fantasy film about a female mouse whose children are in danger from the plow, being rescued by rats, especially rats who use swords, well, that worked for me.  It had fantasy, it had adventure, it some humor.  And at that time we didn’t have a VCR and the older, classic Disney films weren’t coming on HBO (we never had the Disney Channel in those early years – it was considered as big a deal as a pay station as HBO back then) and the current run of Disney films just weren’t that great.  But there was this (I didn’t know at the time, of course, that it was made by disenchanted former Disney employees who wanted to get back to basics).  So I really enjoyed this film and I watched it a lot as it continued on HBO.

But then something else happened.  In the fall of 1983 I entered fourth grade and one of the projects in fourth grade was reading Newbury winners.  I don’t remember how many we were supposed to read (I do know that we were supposed to do a project on one of them and I did a truly awful song about Dr. Dolittle which I can still hear in my brain over 30 years later).  I do remember how many I read.  Being me, I read all of them.  Yes, even the ridiculously long The Story of Mankind, the first winner, that no one reads.  Some of them I have absolutely no memory of (Caddie Woodlawn?  Secret of the Andes?).  Some of them I still loathe (Johnny Tremain).  But some of them I immediately embraced as absolutely wonderful.  For his book report project right now, Thomas is reading The 21 Balloons.  And later in the school year, for another one, he’ll read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

And thus we come to what happened to me in that school year.  I read Mrs. Frisby and I absolutely loved it.  In some ways, it was the same as the film – the back story, the main plot, the main characters.  But in some ways it was so very different.  They had created an actual villain in the film when the book really had none (well, none except NIMH).  They added a bizarre mystical aspect to the film (Nicodemus is essentially a sorcerer in the film) that wasn’t in the book at all.  They even added a lot of danger at the end, in moving the house, that wasn’t in the book.  The rats have no problem moving the house in the book – it’s actually the arrival of NIMH that is the main danger in the book; to the extent, the main death in the film never happens in the book, and there is an unknown death in the book that is never made quite clear.

There were no rats with swords in the book – certainly not a swordfight like in the film.  And it turned out I was okay with that.  I much preferred the straight science fiction of the book to the fantasy of the film (a little strange, since I am more of a fantasy guy than sci-fi guy).  And so, even though I watched the film at least another couple of times after that, I no longer felt the same about it.

I had really enjoyed the animated versions of The Hobbit and Return of the King as a kid, but I had read them first.  I liked Charlotte’s Web, but wouldn’t read it until I was in high school.  I had read novelizations of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they were films first and foremost.  This was my first experience with seeing a film, then reading the book, and realizing that the book was superior.  It would be repeated again and again (and then started happening in reverse, as I would start reading the books first).

As an Adult:  And so now I return to this film for the first time in at least 20 years.  I own the film, having picked it up on video for a dollar, figuring that Thomas could watch it at some point.  So the three of us watched it together the other night and I looked at it anew.

I found, well, I found something in between my first viewings of the film and the disappointment of what I had found when I went back after first reading the book.  I understand more, I think, of what the filmmakers were trying to do, and I understand some of the choices they made.  Could it have perhaps been a better film if they had stuck more to the book?  Well, some of the choices I don’t agree with, but others, well some of the others do a lot for the film.

The main choice of changing this from a science-fiction story to a fantasy story has its downside.  I don’t understand the point of making Nicodemus the sorcerer (making him an old man gets him out of the way for the essential Justin – Jenner battle).  He could have just told Mrs. Brisbee (the name was changed for the film because Wham-O was going to cause legal problems) the back story, rather than the bizarre mystical way she sees it happening.  And it’s not explained at all – yes, NIMH made them smarter, but they also somehow made Nicodemus into a mage?  But perhaps it’s necessary to get to the stone, and the stone is an important change which I will get to in a second.

The other main change – of making the problem of moving the house the main danger rather than the arrival of NIMH (by then the rats are just gone) works better from a dramatic standpoint, and it also makes a pretty dark story a little lighter – yes Nicodemus is gone, but we have a clear resolution rather than the dark ambiguity of the book’s ending.  And to put the sword battle in there provides a little concluding action.

As for the magical stone?  Well, in some ways it’s the weakest part of the changes – it just seems to come in out of left field.  On the other hand, it takes Mrs. Brisbee, who doesn’t do much at the end of the novel (though she is very brave earlier on) and makes her the heroine who saves her own children rather than relying on the rats.  The stone is the only way to have that work.  So, I don’t object to it nearly as much as I used to.  She really is the key character and this just concludes with her being the heroine rather than a more passive role at the ending.

So then, those are the changes.  Some I still don’t like and some I at least understand.  It’s not the book – but it has a lot of the good things and themes of the book.  I no longer feel the same about adaptations – I’m better with them straying provided they don’t betray the original source and its characters and ideas.

And what about the film itself?  Well, going back to it again, I’ve bumped it up into the lower-level of ***.5 (which means it now qualifies for my Best Animated Film award, and since the only other animated film from 1982 I’ve seen is The Last Unicorn, which I haven’t seen in over 30 years and will certainly be the future recipient of an RCM post, it becomes the winner as well).  It is action-packed, it is interesting, it has a great lead character who seems passive (she is a mouse after all), but is actually extremely brave and is the heroine in almost every part of the story (saving Jeremy, going against the cat, facing the Great Owl, braving the plow, drugging the cat, saving her children).

But the key aspect which is so good about this film is the way it is designed.  Don Bluth really did go back to basics with this film.  It has color and light in the way that Bambi does, because of the way the film was shot.  It does great work in the shadows and webs in the den of the Great Owl (with a palpable menace as well, both with the spider, and then the Great Owl himself).  It does a great job of creating the characters and bringing them to life.  It simply looks better than any Disney film made between The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid, aside from the quality of the story itself.  It is not a classic and it doesn’t came anywhere near Disney’s Golden Age or the great Disney revival.  But it is a very good animated film and one, while not as good as the book, that doesn’t shame its source material either.