The Lorax: A Book and Movie Meditation

It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.” 
Wendell Berry

When I was about five years old, in one of my earliest memories, my father and grandfather took me hunting. I had been before—had my own camouflage overalls and BB gun, my ponytail bouncing in the pick-up truck across the fields. I remember little bursts of color and shapes, the amber of the winter wheat and grasses, the wet, cold of the ground and the evergreens rolled out like rich wallpaper all around.

The moment that sputters and finally comes to life though is me, brushing ahead of Daddy and Granddaddy, to find it lying on the ground. Just “bird” to five-year-old mind, but probably a quail, and a brown, fragile thing it was. I stood over it for a moment, and then, without hesitating, I aimed my gun at its eye and shot it. With all the joy of cat pouncing a mouse, I felt the pleasure of the kill.

But at that moment, something happened. For the first time, I realized slowly and yet all at once that what I had done might have hurt the tiny creature. I realized that to be shot, to lie suffering on the cold, wet ground might have been painful. And I felt sorry. Very sorry for the little thing, and I walked away afraid of something I didn’t know how to name.

Fast-forward to last Friday night, with me sitting in a nondescript theater with 3D glasses, waiting for the show to begin. Most of you probably know that’s when the movie version of The Lorax opened in theaters. Based on the 1971 Dr. Suess book, it keeps the message of the book intact:  the film  follows the basic plot-line of a fellow—the Once-ler—who clear-cuts a forest to make money, only to realize too late he has destroyed the habitat of the Brown Bar-ba-loots, Humming-fish, and Swomee Swans, as well as his own livelihood.  In an obvious attempt to make the story more kid-friendly and positive, another hero (Jake) is brought into another plot-line, and as our main hero, Jake must brave the apocalyptic world beyond his city and reclaim the last Truffala seed from the Once-ler for his crush, Audrey.  And although there are some irritating side-points along the way, the main message is pretty simple: trees good, greedy people bad.

If you’re looking for a thumb’s up, thumb’s down from me, it’s not a movie my kids will see. Not because it’s just so horrible and will turn your kids into green monsters, but first of all, my kids don’t watch many movies, and there are so many classics I’d rather them cut their teeth on.  This film does venture into anti-capitalist territory (all the bad guys are businessmen) and tends to offer overly-simplistic ideas about what it means to care for the earth. But I suspect grounded kids could watch it and ignore the weird stuff.  Yet the negatives outweigh the positives for me when it comes to my own children. Bambi and Where the Red Fern Grows and Animal Atlas videos on Netflix aren’t perfect, but they aren’t as hyperbolic and they still nurture a love of Creation.  And then there are all the wonderful poetry suggestions from our readers this week.  (Click here to spark your child’s imagination with classic poems about nature!  Don’t forget to leave your favorites in the comments to win your favorite poetry book! Contest ends 3/10/12.)

However, since the movie version of The Lorax just obliterated its competition at the box-office, it’s clear that this is one movie you and your children are likely to encounter at friends’ houses for years to come. So it’s probably worth  going a little deeper in my analysis. I recently sent off a review for World Magazine in which I talk about the political context of the movie today and how disappointed I was that it’s being used to promote fringe idealogies. (Will try to remember to link to it in another week when it’s available. ) But today, even though it may seem schizophrenic, I’d like to acknowledge something really right about the film.

I was fascinated by the city of Thneedville itself.  It’s a place where everything is plastic—from the houses and trees to the flowers and bees. The Thneedvillians seem to revel in their fakeness. Why would you want a real tree, the mom asks, when you can have a plastic, technicolor disco-ball tree? (Have to admit, that argument does hold a little water with me….) And, I mean, doesn’t it ring true just a little, the portrayal of our culture as a fake place, both outside and inside?

Since Dr. Suess’s book, we’ve made a lot of strides in American forestry.  As our guest James Wanliss pointed out last week, the U.S. actually has more forestland than we did 100 years ago.  But I think about concrete city-skapes I’ve seen, in which the only signs of life are the weeds in-between the side-walk cracks.  Or the times I’ve had to force my kids to put down the computer and go play outside. As a culture, we are at such a great distance from the natural world—certainly I am compared to my grandparents who were subsistence farmers. If we look at the impact of entertainment technology alone, according to some studies kids spend 7 hours a day watching TV, playing video games, and otherwise consuming media. That means they aren’t spending that time playing with puppies, digging in the dirt, or riding bikes around the park.  We are ever more living in virtual worlds, and I think a lot of Americans see that as a loss.

It’s certainly not an anti-Christian point of view.  Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) has written with grace about her relationship with the land, and though Agragians like Wendell Berry are a little too far on the liberal side politically for me, I sympathize with their mourning our separation from Creation. I’m also put in mind of Tolkein, whose awareness of the natural world in his LOR trilogy and characters like Treebeard seem a critique some of the excesses of industrialism and the hubris of Modern Science during his day. (Can you think of others?)

In so far as The Lorax calls a spade a spade, and helps kids recognize that we’ve lost something in our relationship with the natural world, I think it is right on. I am certain that the garden of Eden wasn’t plastic for a reason, just as I believe the lions and lambs of the new heaven and earth won’t be wind-ups.

That said, without a real space-time fall to point to, our culture will always find shallow reasons for our disconnect.  And we’ll always find some hope outside of Christ for our redemption.  It’s capitalism that’s the ultimate problem.  Or too many video games.  Or lack of knowledge about how much guppies contribute to our ecosystem.  And so the answer is recycle more, or higher taxes, or buy green products.  I don’t mean to say these things can’t be helpful, but they miss the entire point of our suffering!  We are suffering because we are separated from God, morally and spiritually, and without His help, there is no lasting redemption.  We feel fake not merely because we use plastic or play video games, but because we are imposters–trying to be God ourselves.

If we really think for a moment about the fallenness of the world, remember how we felt when our first pet died, or a family member, the veneer of “sustainability”  which we spread across it all as a solution wears dreadfully thin. Don’t get me wrong, if “sustain” is all that we can do now, if for the moment all we have is the morphine of blindness and forgetfulness, then I understand it’s practical usefulness. But let us not teach our children to be satisfied, as the image-bearers of the Divine, with the fruit of Dachau.  Let us not pretend that the natural world is Eden already, and so strip them of any real hope that one day we will be redeemed.   Really, truly, whole and real.  Because the Bible teaches that one day iron gates will come down, and we will no longer be at war with the trees and the sky and the hares and the quail.  Whatever laws about fish hatcheries and oil spills we have to enact now, whatever empathy and fragility we must suppress today in order to “sustain”, I pray that we won’t take from our children the infinitely greater hope of redemption that will “wipe every tear from every eye.”

For a more thorough look at the issues involved in The Lorax, see our Parents’ Guide to Environmentalism in Kids’ Media or our interview with Cornwall Alliance fellow, Dr. James Wanliss.

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