Monday, July 29, 2013

The Swiss Family Robinson

As a young boy, I enjoyed watching Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson.  What is maybe kind of weird is that I remember the family singing “O, Christmas Tree” more than any other part of the movie.  Like any true boy, the idea of fighting pirates on a deserted, tropical island easily captured my imagination, as did the concept of actually living in a tree house.  Could it get any better?  With my own children now getting to the point where they appreciate movies above and beyond Disney princesses, I have turned to the great movies of my childhood.  These clean, fun movies beat just about anything the movie studios have to offer us today.  For the economically-minded like myself, buying a DVD for $10.00 online also beats going to the movie theater, where you pay at least that for one ticket alone.  Anyway, I recently got to relive some childhood excitement when we watched the classic Disney movie.  It got me wondering, though, where they got their story from.

Book cover.The answer is The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (ISBN: 978-0-14-310499-5), but with all movies, the book was only a starting point, and then the screenwriters went from there.  (It’s worth noting that the original story hasn’t been in print much since its 1812 printing and that most people have read a French translator’s version that abridged the original and then added a new storyline halfway through.)    Then again, it’s only fair to note that it seems Wyss was highly influenced by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  The story follows a Swiss pastor and his family (his wife and four boys) as they venture off to the colonies to start a new life.  Their well-equipped ship is wrecked, but somehow all the articles and the ship itself is rather well preserved while all the passengers and crew die except the family.  They make a raft and alight on the island that is to become their home.  The family, through resourcefulness and through an expansive knowledge of the natural sciences, is able to get along rather impressively in their new jungle home.  They’re constantly making trips along the beaches and into the interior of the island in an effort to find out all they can about their new home and to discover new natural resources such as plants and animals they can use to make their life a bit more comfortable and pleasant.  Most trips result in a success of one form or another, and soon the family has a couple places to live, orchards, fields, and an abundant number of livestock and beasts of burden of all various types.  There are some adventures along the way with wild animals, explosives, and the rigors of life under the open skies.  The family’s chance for rescue and a return to society is foiled by rough weather, and they must await another such rare opportunity to come, but such opportunities and the adventures in the meantime are left to the reader to invent for himself.

The story was an interesting one and while overall an enjoyable one, not quite the page turner one would expect having seen the Disney movie.  There are no pirates and no romances to be found in Wyss’s novel.  In fact, he intended it mostly as a tale, cautionary in part, for his own sons.  Therefore, there is a somewhat formal feel to it, and not just because of the old-fashioned language or old-fashioned customs.  Those are, often, to be lamented since modern society does not embrace them, including reverence and gratitude before God, respect for one’s fellow man shown through respectful social interaction, respect for women, and respect for parents.  Like all fiction involving juveniles, the young men and boys of the family seem to be able to do much more and know infinitely more than people of their age really would, but maybe young men of the early 1800s really were just that much more ready to enter the adult world than boys of our times.  I also found it a little less interesting than it could’ve been because success was so forthcoming and because the characters, especially the father, seemed to have unlimited knowledge concerning wildlife, animal husbandry, agriculture, seamanship, and a myriad of other subjects.  Again, I realize the everyday man of the 1800s was more knowledgeable about these than most are today, but it seemed just a little too far fetched in the story.  Still, some dry passages notwithstanding, the book was enjoyable in most parts, is certainly not “children’s literature” as it was originally billed (mature teenagers at the earliest), and probably succeeded in its mission of inspiring the reader to be better since I came away wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to incorporate just a little more knowledge about the natural and mechanical worlds around me into my life.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

1 comment:

Camille said...

I liked that movie, too. The tree house was pretty sweet!