Read It, Scene It: The Borrowers vs. The Secret World of Arrietty

Think about the most beloved books of your childhood. I bet there’s at least one series on your list. Little House on the Prairie? Boxcar Children? Hank the Cowdog? Harry Potter, for you younger folks? Could it be that you were one of the millions of children who found The Borrowers series by Mary Norton captivating?

Well, I wasn’t. I don’t mean I had anything against The Borrowers. I simply never read any of the books. Looking back, I don’t know how I missed out on them. Surely my grade school library had them, right? I certainly liked stories featuring tiny characters. I read Stuart Little about fifty times. When I hear someone mention The Borrowers, I know what they’re talking about, so I must have been aware of the series. Somehow, though, I missed it.

When I saw the previews for The Secret World of Arrietty, I had a big shrieking fangirl fit because I adore Studio Ghibli, and even though Hayao Miyazaki didn’t direct this one, he did write the screenplay. If you aren’t sure who he is, by the way, he’s the brain behind films like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo, to name just a few. That’s right, the anime guy! You’re with me now, right? Well, I waited for the movie’s release excitedly for a few days. Then, oh horrors! I found out it’s based on a book! I have a strict “read it first” rule. I only watch the movie or TV adaptation first if I’m not aware there’s a book, mainly because it would be silly to buy a ticket, sit through the opening credits, realize the movie is based on a book, and then leave. I’m not that big of a purist. But! If I know, then I have to read it before I see it. (Unless it’s like Paranorman and the movie came first.)

What with one thing and the other, I’ve just finally gotten around to reading The Borrowers, the first book in the series, and I have now at last gotten to watch The Secret World of Arrietty. So, how do a 1952 British children’s book and its 2010 Japanese animated adaptation measure up?

The BorrowersArriety

In both the book and the film, teenage girl Arrietty Clock lives with her father Pod and her mother Homily. Pod provides for the family, Homily makes their home and worries herself sick about everyone and everything, and Arrietty longs to see more of the world. Also, they’re about the size of mice. The Clocks are Borrowers, teeny-weeny people who survive by living secretly in human homes and filching little bits of supplies from their unwitting hosts. You know, a sugar cube here, a soap scraping there, never enough that anyone would miss it, and certainly never enough to rouse suspicion. In the lives of The Borrowers, the worst calamity than can befall a body is being “seen” by a “bean,” a.k.a. human being. Of course, headstrong teenager Arrietty yearns to see more of the outside world, but when she’s seen by a human boy and begins a friendship with him, she puts her family at risk of discovery.

I wish I’d read the book as a child. The intricate descriptions of the Clocks’ home with its matchbox furniture, the twee atmosphere, the very Britishness of it would have obsessed me, I’m sure. I’ll definitely start pushing it to kids at the library. However, I read it as an adult, and I struggled with it. I’m used to books with faster action, and Norton’s storytelling pace isn’t exactly brisk. I’d say it’s 50% description, 30% expository dialogue, and 20% stuff actually happening. Arrietty’s a fun and spunky heroine, but I did want to tell her to listen to her parents and stop, you know, endangering her family’s lives. On the other hand, her mom is so hysterical that it’s easy to see why Arrietty doesn’t take her seriously. All in all, it’s a cute but slim read.

The movie is a different animal altogether. Norton’s world lends itself perfectly to the screen. Her extensive, whimsical descriptions translate into beautiful animated backdrops whose every last detail makes the existence of the Borrowers convincing. The film version mellows the cuteness and infuses a wistful, meditative quality, especially in the outdoor sequences. Arrietty standing in front of dancing tulips with wind-tossed hair is every bit as striking as any scene out of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Or, for you non-anime fans, as striking as a Georgia O’Keefe floral painting. While Homily’s character is every bit as shrill and hand-wringing as in the book, Arrietty is more level-headed and less carelessly disobedient. Pod isn’t a talkative Cockney da as in the book, either. Pod in the movie is a strong, quiet, and deliberate leader. As cartoons go, he’s pretty sexy. I kept wondering how he wound up with Homily.

A few plot points change or are expanded to increase suspense  and the level of danger the characters face. The story’s set in Japan, not Britain. The boy in the movie is a gentle, caring soul rather than a sullen brat. The greatest liberty taken is the inclusion of the character Spiller, a skin-wearing, cricket-eating, arrow-shooting Borrower about Arrietty’s age who doesn’t show up in the first book. Overall, the studio manages to preserve the spirit of the Borrowers while breathing new life into them.

Although The Secret World of Arrietty is animated and doesn’t contain material unsuitable for children, it has more in common with an adult-focused film than with standard hyper-chatty, candy-colored kid fare. Even if you read The Borrowers years ago as a young child, it’s the grown-up in you that’s going to appreciate the film.