Adapt This! Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'

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Image Credit: Shel Silverstein

Once there was a tree
And she loved little boy.

Yo, is The Giving Tree by the great Shel Silverstein not the saddest children’s book in all the land? A quick summary in case you haven’t been six recently or just haven’t felt like weeping: Boy takes a liking to a tree, tree loves him back; Boy ditches tree because he’s too cool; Boy demands money, tree offers her apples to sell; Boy demands house, tree offers her branches for house; Boy demands boat to escape his mid-life crisis, tree offers her trunk; Boy complains about being old and tired, tree is like, “I’m just a stump now because you took everything from me but you should sit on me if it will make you happy”; and the Boy does – he just sits on her.

Funny or Die released a fake trailer for a horror version of The Giving Tree in August starring Tyler Posey from MTV’s Teen Wolf that was, in fact, both funny and deathly. But I’m not joking around. I’m dead serious. The time is right, the time is now: time for The Giving Tree movie.

The Giving Tree is in an exclusive club of children’s books that are both popular classics and also, darkly disturbing: The Giver, Flowers in the Attic, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, etc. Charlotte’s Web and Where the Wild Things Are have both been adapted into films, to great success.

Now, films for Flowers in the Attic and The Giver have both been announced as being in production for release in 2014. Sure, one is super incest-y and the other cast a bunch of 20-somethings (and Taylor Swift) to play 12-year-olds, but with The Giver being backed by both Jeff Bridges and Lois Lowry, and Flowers in the Attic casting divas of all ages (Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham, Kiernan Shipka), they’re likely to be successful.

I see where you might be like, “hold up, isn’t that book about a talking tree and only has one other character and that character kind of sucks?” But The Giving Tree’s themes lend themselves so well to film and especially, to society’s current zeitgeist: “Young people need to stop being jerks! We need to conserve our resources! We’re all screwed when we get old!” This is basically a Wall-e-esque warning for the granola sect.

The Giving Tree is ripe for the picking and the story is prime for children’s lessons on sharing and caring. But many of those stones go unturned in Silverstein’s book, making a film adaptation an even more exciting option to tell the story with more depth. The Giving Tree was published in 1964, which was right in the pocket of Dr. Spock pumping parents’ heads full of psychoanalysis on leniency and instant gratification. That tree is about two steps from saying “you is kind, you is smart, you is important” while the Boy chops her to pieces. Her selfless love in the book is practically sadomasochistic.

In a film, I’d like to see a Tree with a little more sass. The adaptation could go two ways: animated or live action. Animated is a good choice, especially if they could make the Tree anything like Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas. But live action is a much more interesting choice when you look at the film-ready puzzle pieces that already exist in the original material: a classic coming of age story, a mystic life guide and a general understanding of carpentry.

When you combine the kind of artistry Spike Jonze incorporated into Where the Wild Things Are with the narrative liberties of a Shakespeare adaptation like, say, 10 Things I Hate About You, a live action The Giving Tree is more than possible.

Let’s dream cast, shall we?

A pretty charming series of actors is needed to play the aging Boy, if there’s any hope for an audience to root for that bark-stripping jerk. Let’s give Art Parkinson, a.k.a. Lil’ Rickon from G.O.T., a chance to flex his acting muscles as the youngest variation of The Boy. Age him into Dylan O’Brien as the too cool apple-selling Boy. If Ryan Reynolds destroyed a house in Amityville Horror, he can build one as mid-30s Boy. We’ll say George Clooney as boat-building middle-aged Boy and Anthony Hopkins as the tired final-straw-sit-on-a-stump Boy.

That seems to be a very charming (very good-looking) 75-year life span. Now imagine a strong, funny, maternal actress like Helen Mirren or Viola Davis nurturing that boy, loving him, treating him as her own; and then going totally HAM on Anthony Hopkins because he’s taken advantage of her for the majority of a century and now he’s trying to sit on her! I’d watch that.

And the tree was happy.

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