My four year old son is obsessed with all things Peter Rabbit, especially the animated version on TV. It’s often the only programme he will watch. At bedtime we read Peter Rabbit books.
The Peter Rabbit of Beatrix Potter is a slightly different fellow from his TV-star cousin. The original rabbit is very naughty and gets into near-death trouble by disobeying his mother and venturing into Mr. McGregor’s garden. We are told that his father had an “accident” there and was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Peter is spotted by the Scottish gardener who gives chase. The rabbit feels quite desperate. His fear and tears have real pathos when he is caught on some bird netting. He escapes, leaving behind his blue jacket, and has to hide in a watering can where he catches a cold. All in all it is a slightly miserable tale which ends in him alive, but going to bed early with a temperature.
Potter’s tales have been called fables. They personify animals and have strong morals – like do not repeat the mistakes of your parents (Peter Rabbit),be polite to your elders (Squirrel Nutkin), and do not trust smooth-talking strangers over those who are near and dear to you (Jemima Puddleduck).
Despite being a bit on the miserable side, the first Peter Rabbit tale is the best in the series. It is unforgettable. It’s that implied moral – don’t repeat the mistakes of your parents – that is so unusual in a children’s tale. And am I right in detecting a proto-feminist angle? Peter’s dad seems like he was a bit of a wastrel, and his son is following in his foolish footsteps. The mother and the little sisters, with their irritatingly cute names – Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail – seem more sensible.
My grandmother had the whole series of Beatrix Potter on the shelves of her “Pink Cottage” in the New Forest. They might have been near-original editions of the little books. I never really liked the stories, but I have always remembered them in detail. There is something about them that resonates, even if it is weakness of character and its bad consequences.
Not far away from my grandmother lived my uncle who was an avid gardener and enemy of rabbits. They dug holes in his well-tended lawn. I learned from him that if you want to shoot a rabbit, you have to sit on a stool so that it can’t smell you. If he saw a rabbit on the road, he would swerve his car to hit it. He once brought a skinned rabbit to my mother’s house in London. Only when it was cooked and on the dining room table did he mention that his cat had killed it.
From a rabbit’s point of view, my uncle must have seemed as pitiless as Mr. McGregor. But I knew him as a kindly uncle. It all goes to show that it’s your point-of-view that counts.
The TV series is much more upbeat than the original tales. The danger from the enemies, Mr. Todd the fox, Old Brown the owl, Tommy Brock the badger, and yes, Mr. McGregor, is thrilling but not so chilling. Nutkin, the naughty squirrel, is a firm favourite of my son because he’s quite bonkers. In the books he’s an irritating creature.
In Beatrix Potter, naughty animals do not escape danger through their own courage or skill. There is usually some undeserved good luck – like the farm dogs coming to rescue Jemima or Nutkin’s tail coming off.
The TV Peter is an ingenious adventurer who is great at escaping scrapes. His motto is “a good rabbit never gives up.” His hero is his late father whom he refers to as “good old Dad.” Cousin Benjamin mutters “rabbits are brave, rabbits are brave,” every time he is in mortal trouble. Their bright-as-a-button friend, Lilly (not in the books as far as I know) is a little bit precocious and likes to say “I know that for a fact”.
TV Peter and friends always outwit the baddies.
My son clearly relates to the TV rabbits’ energy, inventiveness, and ingenuity. He likes the books too. I think the TV series made him interested in the original stories (so don’t say TV is all bad).
Even though I did not love the tales in my own childhood, I enjoy reading them to him now – there is something about the way the plot develops with each turn of the page that really works. You feel the beat of fate as the consequences of the characters’ foolish behaviour unfolds.
When he’s seen all the Peter Rabbit shows on the BBC iPlayer a million times, we catch some of the American versions on YouTube. I must admit I don’t like the voices as much. We are used to American accents over here, and so it should not matter. Disney’s Pooh Bear characters are fine. But the American Peter Rabbit and his friends seem to squark too much for my ears. Naturally, the suave and evil fox, Mr. Todd, retains his British accent.
Another updated spin on Peter Rabbit are the books by the actress Emma Thompson. Her father was Eric Thompson, the creator of the psychedelic Magic Roundabout, and he read Peter Rabbit to his children in the voice of the Dougal, the shaggy dog. Her Peter Rabbit emulates a traditional approach. The language is quite stilted – lots of use of the passive, and some Edwardian turns of phrase. They aren’t great stories, and they don’t touch upon right and wrong, life and death, wisdom and foolishness, but they are light-hearted and fun stories and are beautifully illustrated. Yes, the illustrations are really nice – but they aren’t iconic in the way that Potter’s unforgettable images are. Still we enjoy Thompson’s Peter too.
It seems that there are some characters who are immortal. Peter Rabbit is one of them.
The publisher Penguin, via its subsidiary Frederick Warne & Co, has gone to great legal lengths to extend the rights of Peter Rabbit. It has applied for trademarks for Peter Rabbit–related “books and texts in all media”, “toilet seat covers”, “meat extracts,” and just about anything else its lawyers could think of.
I think Storynory has to stay away from Peter Rabbit to be safe. But let us know what you think of Peter in his various guises on TV and in the books.