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A tale transformed
Chris Van Allsburgís Polar Express hits the big screen

Award-winning childrenís book author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg came to drawing by a circuitous route. Heíd loved making boat and car models when he was growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, being more meticulous than many peers with his careful painting of the completed models and even gluing fabric onto the plastic seats.

When he chose to enter the art school at the University of Michigan, Van Allsburg had no idea exactly what heíd be studying. But by the time he finished his undergrad work, he was committed to sculpture, and he came to the Rhode Island School of Design for his graduate degree. Van Allsburg would later teach there for several years. He also had an early break when a New York gallery gave him an exhibition and shortly thereafter asked if he had any drawings for a group show at the Whitney Museum. He sent down the few that he had and was surprised when they were accepted.

Concurrently, his wife, Lisa, an elementary school art teacher, introduced him to illustrator/author David Macaulay, who sent him to his editor at Houghton Mifflin. The rest is history in the world of childrenís literature: a Caldecott Honor Award (a runner-up) for his very first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (í79); the Caldecott itself for his second, Jumanji (í81); and a very unusual second Caldecott for The Polar Express (í85). Though Jumanji got a lot of attention when it was made into a film in 1995, it is The Polar Express that has captured the hearts of children and their parents, inspiring annual holiday readings and reenactments at schools, libraries, and other venues.

One of the most thrilling such spinoffs for Van Allsburg is done in the village of North Conway, New Hampshire. A steam-powered train drops its passengers at a ski lodge for a meeting with Santa. Afterward, watching the train approach through a cloud of steam among the pine trees, its own light beaming through, the author thought, "This is really a great idea." Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis obviously agreed and have turned The Polar Express into a feature-length film which opens November 10.

Van Allsburg and his wife and two daughters still make their home on the East Side of Providence. The following is excerpted from a recent phone conversation.

Q: Whatís been different about your relationship to this film than it was with Jumanji?

A: The personalities of the filmmakers and their goals as storytellers. In my early conversations with Tom Hanks, before I sold the film rights, he described to me what he thought the film should be, and it should not utilize any of the tired conventions of Hollywood filmmaking, especially the conventions in childrenís films, which always include an antagonist. You have to have a villain. In The Polar Express, that would have been some fellow trying to blow up the train before it got to the North Pole.

So he and I agreed that that shouldnít be in it. He said, furthermore, itís not the kind of story that should be awash in the kind of irony and pop culture that you see in kidís films, and I agreed with him. Because the story couldnít accommodate that; trying to do that with this particular story would have made ó not necessarily a bad film ó but it wouldnít have been this book. Because the bookís pretty earnest, and Tom thought thatís the way the film should be too.

Q: What do you think of the finished film?

A: It really is kind of unusual to see a film, with its intended audience as younger kids, and there are no jokes about flatulence, no kids on skateboards. You look at the film and even though the technology clearly puts it absolutely contemporary, thereís nothing about the quality of the narrative or the story values that tells you whether it was written in 1950 or 1940 or 1980. Itís devoid of time reference. Itís actually one of the nicest parts of the film.

Q: Did you feel left out not doing the adaptation?

A: Yes, but thatís not the way you make a movie. The challenge of taking the tiny story thatís in a picture book which is not likely to be much more than a premise, an idea, something as ephemeral as an inspiration ó thatís always going to require a great deal of augmentation and elaboration in order to be a film narrative. The possibility of creating something different from the original by adding things is much greater than the other way around. The challenge is to add things that really in a sense do amplify the themes and tonalities and not just simply add story material thatís in conflict with it or doesnít support it.

Q: What about the actual look of this film? How do you feel about the advanced technology that was able to be used? Was that exciting for you?

A: It was. I realized that would allow the filmmaker to not only use the story idea thatís in the book but to essentially use the book as a style guide: to make the visual reality of the film an extension of the still shots that exist in the book. There are a number of places where you actually see for an instant the picture from the book, but itís moving. Thatís a peculiar thing to see after Iíve looked at the images so many times when theyíre just lying on a piece of paper ó to actually see them get up and move.

Q: What do you think happens to the imagination of a child when they read a book in contrast to when they watch a movie?

A: In a picture book, there are a fair amount of things that are left unsaid or unshown ó the child or the reader is obliged to fill in those things. You engage the readerís imagination in a way that makes encountering a book slightly collaborative. Itís almost as if a book doesnít exist until thereís an intellect to comprehend it.

I suppose thatís true with films, too, but films are kind of comprehensive; thereís not a great deal left for the imagination. You just basically sit in a theater and absorb whatís washing across you. Obviously there are exceptions to that, because a filmmaker can, through a conscientious and deliberate approach to filmmaking, try to engage the imagination of the audience by suggesting things but not presenting them, by providing clues but not answers.

Q: Although your humor comes through in many of your other stories, itís not as evident in Polar Express. What kinds of things usually make you smile?

A: Hard to say. I am amused by cognitive dissonance, when two things donít seem to go together. Sometimes those things literally are laughter, but laughter around something that might be sad. The Polar Express has a little bit of that ó itís bittersweet. Youíre savoring a story that seems to be filled with a kind of reward or the satisfaction of a fantasy, but then you realize when you get to the end, itís a really fairly melancholy tale ó thatís the bitter part. It might be because it was driven by genuine feelings on my part.

Q: Youíve said that sometimes you set out to write a story and discover something else as you go along. How did that work in this book?

A: When I started writing The Polar Express, it was just about a train ride; I wasnít even certain it was going to the North Pole. Only that it could go anywhere. What I had in mind was a train which a child could enter and had no other passengers, but the child had only to speak the destination that he chose to go to and the train would go there. I had this idea, "How great to sit in a train car and go even underneath the ocean." But then, it turned into a trip north, and then specifically to the North Pole, and then specifically on Christmas Eve.

As all those story ideas clicked into place, I started working at it, but I didnít have the idea at the outset about a boy who has this conflict of whether or not his maturing rationality should be embraced and he should kiss off this thing that heís cherished for his life so far. But thatís what it became, without deliberately reaching into my own past. That was just laying around in my skull. And there it was.

Q: What about those buildings at the North Pole? Do they have a look of Providence about them?

A: I wrote the book after Iíd lived in Providence for 13 years. Iíd seen a lot of the old mill buildings, but Grand Rapids had some empty furniture factories. So the cityscape presented is something that I saw both in the Midwest and here. It was simply a result of applying logic to the fantasy. If you establish a wild premise like the fact that thereís a place up North where all toys are made for all Christmas gift-giving, done by Santa, then it canít be the silly little chalet with a dozen elves which youíve see all your life. If I really want to convince children, adults, and even myself that this is really where it happens, it canít look like that. You must create a reality where it seems plausible.

Q: Have you come to look at this book a little differently over the years, with feedback from readers?

A: Yes, more than the others because this story is somewhat more sentimental. Itís slightly melancholy about feelings of loss, although those feelings arenít really described but certainly established in the coda at the end of the book. Those arenít in my other stories, and I think that it affects readers in a different way because of that. So many people identify with those feelings of longing for their childhood and the observation of their children exiting their childhood. It has had many meanings in their lives around Christmas that are a great satisfaction to me as an artist but that I didnít really anticipate.

Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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