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February 02, 2006

It is easy for little monkeys to forget

Most of us who grew up with Curious George (and the Man with the Yellow Hat) have fond recollections of the little monkey who tries to be good and understands the man's instructions to behave but simply can't resist temptation. (And it is easy for little monkeys to forget.) But you won't be surprised to learn that these tales have been deconstructed and mythologized, so that, for example, the tale has become a narrative of black slavery. Jeff Goldstein has written amusingly about having presented three alternative narratives of the book to his students.

John Miller, of National Review, now writes in the Wall Street Journal about the new Curious George movie, scheduled for release next week.

The original Curious George offends so many of the 21st century's delicate sensibilities that if it were written today, no major publisher would accept it without demanding big revisions. And so, in crucial respects, the forthcoming movie--if its trailer is any guide--is sure to take liberties with the classic books by the wife-and-husband team of Margret and H.A. Rey.
Now, I don't want you to think that I'm all up in arms about how some baddies in Hollywood are blaspheming the Holy Writ by altering the text of the Book of Monkeys. After all, Hollywood butchers the classics every day. But think for a moment how silly it is to update a book that everyone knows so well in its traditional form.
This year, Curious George turns 65--if he were human, he would qualify for full retirement benefits. But he's also very much a creature of his era. Consider how the first book violates our modern codes of political correctness. Rather than an eco-tourist, the Man in the Yellow Hat is a gun-toting poacher. When he first spots George, he says, "I would like to take him home with me." So he sets down his goofy hat as a lure. As George investigates, the man sneaks up from behind, pops him into a bag, and takes him home. Then George becomes Caliban with a twist: The man doesn't teach his simian sidekick how to curse, but he does show him how to drink booze and smoke a pipe.

There's something to be said for keeping liquor and tobacco products out of movies aimed at children, but the new film's whitewashing will go much further: The trailer makes clear that although the man still wears a yellow hat, he's also an unarmed naturalist. There's no snatch-and-grab, either. Instead, George mistakes the hat for a banana and follows the man across the ocean as a stowaway.
Miller quips that while the British publisher in the 1940s changed the name of the monkey, because "curious" meant "gay" in local slang,
Today's Hollywood probably would be more comfortable making the Man in the Yellow Hat an out-and-proud homosexual than an exploiter of the animal kingdom. Not that there's anything wrong with that, especially if producer Ron Howard and his crew deliver an entertaining movie. When it comes to children's books, however, the film industry's track record does not provide much confidence.
And as Miller points out, who knows whether the Reys wouldn't have gone along with this?
Perhaps these revisions are an acceptable bowdlerization. As dutiful liberals, the Reys might have played along willingly. (The Curious George Foundation, created by their estate's wealth, has given millions of dollars to everything from public television to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club.)
So I've decided to drop my plans to announce a boycott of the movie by middle-aged guys without small kids. Besides which, everyone who's read the books knows that the Man with the Yellow Hat is in fact gay.