A few months ago the radio show/podcast Studio 360 asked listeners for submissions on the subject of, “Is there a particular adaptation you hate?” My submission has been met with deafening silence–maybe they’ve scrapped the project, so here’s an expanded version of it. And there will be spoilers.
A week after school let out a local movie theater held a free midday screening of The Secret Of NIMH just for kids. We filled up every auditorium. The one I went into had Poltergeist on the marquee and I hadn’t developed a taste for horror yet so I was prepared to run if they had the wrong film, but that’s another story. After it was over I asked a friend who’d read the book what he thought of the movie. “I hated it,” he said. After I read the book too I understood.
It’s not that I hate The Secret Of NIMH. Considered as a film by itself it’s understandably still considered a classic by critics and still has devoted fans more than thirty-five years after its initial release. It’s the first film by director Don Bluth, who left Disney to form his own production company, and it’s better than what a lot of Disney had put out and would put out. The animation is amazing and the casting is perfect, especially Dom DeLuise who adds just the right amount of comic relief to what otherwise is a pretty dark story. Considered as an adaptation, though, it’s a failure, and a terrible betrayal of its source material, Mrs. Brisby & The Rats Of NIMH, the Newbery-award winning novel by Robert C. O’Brien.
For the most part the plots of both are the same: Mrs. Frisby, renamed “Brisby” in the film to avoid confusion with Frisbees, is a field mouse whose home, a “slightly damaged cinder-block”, is threatened by the farmer’s plow. It’s early spring but she can’t move her family because her son Timothy has pneumonia. On the advice of an owl she goes to the rats who live in a rosebush and learns they have a complex mechanized society, and the engineering skills to move her home.
In the film Timothy is a shadow, barely seen and almost always asleep, so we never learn what makes him different from the other children. In the book Mrs. Frisby knows he’s “the smartest and most thoughtful of her children, though she never would have admitted this aloud.” We learn later on that he entertains his younger sister with stories. He’s also the frailest child and while the stunted artistic type may be overplayed it underscores the importance of diversity and brains, even among field mice.
Brisby’s meeting with the rats is the beginning of the film’s divergence with the book. In both the rats, feeling they’re too dependent on what they steal from humans–including electricity–have a plan to leave and form an independent society. In both a group led by a rat named Jenner disagrees with this plan, but while in the book Jenner and the others have already left he’s present in the film and secretly plotting a coup against the rat leader Nicodemus.
Nicodemus himself is another major difference between the book and film. In the book he’s very much a rat, although he’s scarred and wears an eyepatch. In the film he’s a frail wizard with a narrow nose and glowing eyes; beautifully animated but very un-ratlike, and so removed from the others it’s hard to believe he’s their leader. He seems more like a hermit sage. In the film he gives Mrs. Brisby an amulet and tells her, “Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it’s there.” This is not only bad poetry. It’s also heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Nicodemus also explains why he and the other rats, as well as the late husband of Mrs. Frisby/Brisby and another field mouse named Mr. Ages, came to be so unusual. Once ordinary rats experiments conducted on them at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) turned them into super rodents, able to read, write, and engineer. In the film this is compressed into a sequence so short it seems to happen overnight. This is unfortunate because it’s one of the best parts of the book, a story within the story. Switching from a third-person limited perspective to a first person narrative so far into a novel is a risky thing to do, but it pays off. We learn the extended backstory of Nicodemus, that he left behind a sick brother when he was captured. We learn that the rats advanced faster and farther than their human captors realized, but are smart enough to hide the fact, and we learn they’ve been so radically changed they can’t return to the society of other rats but have to build a society of their own. And we learn just how vital Jonathan Frisby was in their escape.
It’s a powerful story, like Flowers For Algernon from the mouse’s perspective, and this is where it’s clear that the book has too much depth for a feature film and needed to be a miniseries at the very least for a proper adaptation.
A crucial point in both book and film is that the rats depended on Jonathan to drug the farmer’s large and dangerous cat Dragon. After Mr. Ages breaks his leg Mrs. Frisby/Brisby agrees to do the job, giving them cover to move her house.
The moving of her house is the moment where book and film really part ways and the film’s biggest weakness. In the book they simply move the house. Mrs. Frisby has overheard that people from NIMH are coming to the farm and passes this information on so the rats speed up their evacuation plans. In the film Jenner cuts the ropes that are lifting the house. It falls on Nicodemus and then starts to sink into a conveniently placed mud patch. Mrs. Brisby’s amulet glows and using its power she telepathically moves her house herself.
It’s not that I have anything against magic but it’s out of place in this story. O’Brien’s novel is about the potential and limitations of science, and a medallion ex machina betrays that. It’s also, we’re told, Mrs. Brisby’s “courage of the heart” that causes the stone to glow. She’s already a single mother who takes incredible risks to save just one of her children. She’s learned that her husband had a secret life that resulted in his death. Instead of taking the time to feel hurt she steps up to take his place. Do we really need it underlined that she’s got courage in spades? The amulet seems like a cheap excuse to add some impressive but unnecessary special effects.
The home successfully moved and Timothy safe Jenner is then killed by his waffling co-conspirator and the rats go ahead with their plans to leave. Nicodemus’s death is pointless, especially since he was so frail and wizened he looked like he was pushing Death’s doorbell anyway.
I know this criticism isn’t going to sit well with the film’s fans so I’ll say again that, as a film, I think it’s very well done, beautifully animated, but I’m glad I went in that summer day without having read the book first. For my friend who did I can understand why he would have preferred Poltergeist.