Monday, April 15, 2024

If Wes Anderson Adapted Swallows and Amazons

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A new film adaptation of the beloved children’s book Swallows and Amazons arrives in UK cinemas on August 19th. It’s the second time this story has been adapted for cinema, and the second time one grave and unforgivable error has been made: Wes Anderson didn’t direct the film.

If you’ve ever read Swallows and Amazons or seen the original 1974 film adaptation, and have also seen a Wes Anderson film, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. These two things go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong, and all that.

Welcome to the latest edition of “Adaptations We Deserve” (if you’re new to this series you can catch up on the first instalment here). The following is my plea to the universe that the stars of Swallows and Amazons and Wes Anderson may one day align and fulfil their destiny. It’s the fate we deserve.

book jacket of Swallows and Amazons featuring the red sail boat

The Book

Swallows and Amazons is a classic of children’s literature. Written in 1930 by prolific series author Arthur Ransome, the book follows the play adventures of the four Walker children — John, Susan, Titty, and Roger — as they are allowed to take the dinghy Swallow to a little island in the lake and go camping. During their explorations they meet Nancy and Peggy Blackett, captain and mate respectively of the Amazon. The Walker and Blackett children unite forces against the Blackett’s uncle James “Captain Flint” Turner, a writer holed up in a houseboat working on his memoirs.

The summer is ripe with a sense of adventure, as told through the eyes of six children whose intensely involved imaginations turn Uncle James’ travel trunk into pirate treasure and their tiny dinghys into ships sailing the seven seas.

Ransome’s writing includes detailed descriptions of the children’s sailing, camping and survival skill sets, emphasising that these six kids are whip-smart and prepared for anything. Not only that but his writing style is both comical and endearing, perfectly capturing the creative minds of his young protagonists:

At last [Nancy] said, “The proper thing is to drink to the Jolly Roger, skull and cross-bones, death and glory and a hundred thousand pieces of eight. But you aren’t pirates, so we can’t all drink to that. Really we ought to drink confusion to our enemies….” 
“The pirate with the parrot,” said Titty. 
“The houseboat man,” said Captain John. 
“Right,” said Nancy, “I’ve got it. Swallows and Amazons forever, and death to Captain Flint!” 
“Swallows and Amazons forever,” repeated Peggy, “and death to Uncle Jim!”
“Captain Flint, you chump-headed galoot”, said Captain Nancy.
The others said it all right, even Roger. 
“Now swig,” said Captain Nancy.
It was certainly the finest lemonade that a pirate or explorer ever swigged. 
“I never tasted better rum,” said Able-seaman Titty. 

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome (Red Fox Classics ed., pp 129-130)

screencap of Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett in Life Aquatic by Wes Anderson
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) dir. Wes Anderson

The Director

Wes Anderson has directed 8 feature films, all of which embody his relentlessly quirky, symmetrical sense of style that often looks as though a 1970s dollhouse and its inhabitants have come to life. Anderson’s films are rich with a humorous charm that he manages to filter through oddly serious characters, no matter how ridiculously quirky their situation. His previous films, in particular The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom, have featured characters going adventuring across lakes, oceans and islands.

Starting to see how these two are a match made in heaven? If you need more convincing, do I have the thing for you.

The 1974 Film Adaptation

I don’t know how anyone could look at the ’74 version of Swallows and Amazons and not think, “It’s like Wes Anderson made this retroactively”.

But wait. Literally, someone said that. That very quote is the sole comment on this Youtube upload of the 1974 film trailer:

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

So the bigger question remains, how did film executives in 2016 look at the ’74 version of Swallows and Amazons and not think, “well damn, we should get Wes Anderson in on this project!”

The 1974 version even has Life Aquatic‘s iconic red beanies, for crying out loud.

screencap of Peggy in Swallows and Amazons (1974)
Swallows and Amazons (1974) dir. Claude Whatham

The Future Film

Now, I understand that the 2016 version of Swallows and Amazons is a BBC Films production and is undoubtedly as British as the original book. However, Wes Anderson has adapted a British children’s book once before, and done so extremely successfully, in the form of Fantastic Mr Fox. The film was adapted from the book of the same name written by one of the most-loved British children’s authors, Roald Dahl.

There’s no one better suited to capturing the ridiculously charming seriousness of children’s adventures than the man who has made a movie featuring the runaway escapade of two 12-year-olds and cast George Clooney as a cider-stealing fox. And to match, Ransome’s writing is just brimming with Andersonian potential.

So when we add all of this evidence up, is there really any reason why we aren’t deserving of Swallows and Amazons by Wes Anderson?

screencap of Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) dir. Wes Anderson

One final remark: this article does not intend to put down upon the directing talents of Philippa Lowthorpe, who helmed the 2016 adaptation. Lowthorpe directed several episodes of the lovely television series Call the Midwife, and remains the first and only woman to be awarded Bafta for Best Director: Fiction in the Bafta Television Craft Awards. I’m all about women in film and will be watching her adaptation as soon as I can get my hands on it in Australia. Do check it out when the opportunity arises.

Share your thoughts on Swallows and Anderson in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Focus Features, Random House, Touchstone Pictures and Warner. 

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