39. E.B.White

Part I – Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave…!*

I think it is extremely rare if ever, that the complete personal correspondence between a film director/scenarist and one of the most famous story tellers of the 20th century has been published. Here it is, scanned directly from the original letters, uncensored, un-retouched, and I sincerely believe, instructive to all animators.

The great E.B.White, seminal New Yorker magazine writer, and author of classic tales, was in the process of dying as these dramatic events were unfolding. Neither he nor I knew it, but Death was following him as we strode together into the barn cellar.

I was a great fan of E.B.White before I even knew who he was. I only learned later that the stuff I loved most in The New Yorker magazine was written by him anonymously. I only connected with his name when in the early 1950’s my former wife Marie, brought home the Charlotte’s Web book for me to read to our kids. The story of Wilbur the “radiant” pig, and Charlotte, the spider who knew what life was all about, provided many quotes and thoughts that ran through our household. E.B. White was one of the most beloved writers of his time. His work for The New Yorker magazine regaled us for years, and his books, especially Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, are “forever” classics. His English language textbook, The Elements Of Style, revised from a slim volume originally written by his old professor, William Strunk, is my bible even when writing email messages!

The next time that Charlotte’s Web came into my life was in 1970, when I had a new wife and a new HomeSite, living and working with Zdenka in Prague. Another, and totally different White, Henry White, president of Sagittarius Pictures, and his assigned producer Mike Campus showed up in Prague out-of-the-blue, offering me the dream project of producing a feature-length animated movie to be based on Charlotte’s Web! I had no idea of what had gone before, or what would follow. Sagittarius was owned by Seagrams whiskey magnate, Edgar Bronfman, so I should have figured there was something tipsy going on. I wasn’t told that the project was already second hand, having been first offered to none other than my idol and original animation master, John Hubley!

Just being contracted to produce this movie seemed to indicate the pinnacle of my career, but the unravelling of our non-production of “Charlotte’s Web” is about as good a story of producer-chicanery as you’re going to find…

The hidden fact, that I was being set up as a patsy, was a downer only later revealed. But the upside was that I gained something more valuable than the production itself: the personal friendship of E.B. “Andy” White.

Elwyn Brooks White, picked up the nickname “Andy” from his Cornell University days, when it was a tradition that any student named “White” was called “Andy,” after the name of Andrew White, the founder of his fraternity house.

Andy and I carried on a steady personal correspondence, not only during the development of my treatment, script and complete 792-drawing storyboard for Charlotte’s Web, but for nearly ten years afterward, until just before his destruction and death from Alzheimer’s Syndrome.

I suppose that there were many animators who dreamed of an assignment to adapt Charlotte’s Web. Hubley was the best among them. If I can paraphrase the legendary baseball triple-play, here’s a downhill version: “Hubley-to-Deitch-to-Hanna/Barberra!” Hubley had been my own animation inspiration. I began as his protégé at UPA. Doubtless, he would have created a poem of a film, but as it turned out, doggeral was the result.

________________________________________________________
* “0 what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!”

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Here is the whole inside story:

In 1967 John Hubley visited Andy, who realized he was talking to an animation master. He told his lawyer Alexander Lindey and agent Jape Gude to draw up a contract giving Hub the film rights. From the correspondence it’s evident that Andy wanted more control over the material than movie companies are disposed to grant. A contract was signed, but in the end the Hubleys were unable to get financial backing and the project fell through.

The following two letters to his lawyer show’s White’s innocence in the matter of film rights contracts. He was feeling his way, trying to protect his work:

(From “Letters of E.B.White – Harper – pages 549-550)

To ALEXANDER LINDEY  North Brooklin, Me.    May 22, 1967

Dear Al:

Your proposed terms of contract sound all right to me, all twelve of them.  I’m not sure I understand 3b. In addition to a fee of $20,000 the Hubleys will share in the alleged profits, won’t they? (You’ll have to excuse my ignorance in these matters.)

In 4, I don’t know what “merchandising rights” means. Does this refer to my right, subsequently, to make other deals, or does it refer to objects of merchandise – dolls, pigs, sweatshirts? Again excuse my ignorance.

There should probably be a clause somewhere prohibiting the publication in book form of the screenplay or of any other adaptation of my book. When Disney made “Mary Poppins” he got out a book, “The Walt Disney Mary Poppins.” I’m against anything of that sort.

I’m catching the mail with this letter. Tomorrow I’ll try to get off another note to you, clarifying my desires about my “right of approval.” This seems likely to be the touchiest and haziest of all the elements of the agreement.

Yours, Andy”.

Andy had created a noble and literate spider in his story. He was unprepared for the genus of spider that lurked in Hollywood movie studios.  I soon heard from one.

I received a phone call from one Henry White – absolutely no relation – president of Sagittariua Productions. He arrived on my turf in 1970, as I mentioned above.

To ALEXANDER LINDEY [North Brooklin, Me.] May 24,1967

Dear Al:

The purpose of the “right of approval” clause is two-fold: it should protect me from a motion picture version of “Charlotte’s Web” that violates the spirit and meaning of the story, and it should protect the Hubleys from obstructive behavior of an author. The movie will be their creation, not mine, and they will naturally want to get on with it in the way they feel it should go. I believe they are sympathetic with and agreeable to my desire to have a look at the screenplay, see sketches of the principal characters, and hear the principal voices. This shouldn’t be either difficult or expensive.

I want the chance to edit the script wherever anything turns up that is a gross departure or a gross violation. I also would like to be protected against the insertion of wholly new material – songs, jokes, capers, episodes. I don’t anticipate trouble of this sort; the Hubleys have already expressed to me in a letter (as well as verbally) their desire to produce a faithful adaptation, and I believe them to be sincere in this.

This approval business is sensitive, though. Artistic temperaments and pride can easily get on a collision course. In the elaborate papers sent me by Jap Gude, for instance, it says:

“Owner shall have the right of approval, not to be unreasonably withheld. ” (Italics mine.) I don’t know at what point a man’s opinion, or stricture, becomes “unreasonable.  What may seem reasonable to me may well seem unreasonable to the Hubleys. This is the joker. We will just have to work it out between us as best we can.

I will give you an example of what I call a “gross” violation. In my book, Charlotte dies. If, in the screenplay, she should turn up alive at the end of the story in the interests of a happier ending, I would consider this a gross violation, and I would regard my disapproval as reasonable.

Good luck!

Andy

It is amazing that here, Andy writes precisely of the rights of approval he should have in any film adaptation of his work, yet three years later, when he signed with Sagittarius, he settled only for the right to approve the model of Charlotte. Nothing more! The letter to Milton Greenspan, may explain the difference. The Hubleys were signing for film rights without yet having financial backing. In 1970 Sagittarius was paying him “a lot of money,” and so he acquiesced to whatever they demanded.

To MILTON GREENSTEIN [North Brooklin, Me.] November 17, 1970

Dear Milt:

It was good to talk to you. I have signed the four copies of the “Charlotte’s Web” agreement with Sagittarius, and they are enclosed. Thanks for all your work and for straightening me out last night on the phone, and may good luck go with both of us. And send me a bill. This involves a lot of money, so make the bill in proportion – or, as we writers would say, big.

The director, Gene Deitch, who was here Sunday and whom I got on with fine, listened to a fragment of my recording of the book, and it is possible that he may decide to use my voice in narration. Deitch is American-born, but lives in Prague with a Czech wife… He has had 25 years in cartoon film production, worked with UPA, and has scooped up many honors in his field… I feel fairly happy about Deitch – happy as I can ever be in never-never land, which still gives me the shakes.

Yrs, Andy

(From “The Letters of EB White,” Harper Page 608).

Note the line, “this involves a lot of money.” That line possibly sealed my fate. So how did this brilliant writer and good guy get suckered into sacrificing what is perhaps his greatest creation?

40 years after the event I am ready to tell the untold story. I have saved all of the documentation and correspondence, the script and storyboard, so nothing that follows relies on foggy memory. I will mainly let the authentic letters between E.B.White and me tell the story, but first a few paragraphs of background information:

Andy White was 70 years old at the time, and ailing. He had been in a car crash the year before and suffered head and neck injuries, and was in constant pain. Additionally, he was in need of money. To protect him from high annual taxation, he had a “maximum payment” clause built into his Charlotte’s Web book contract with Harpers, limiting him to a maximum yearly royalty payment of $7,500. But Charlotte was a huge success and the royalties were far greater. A great deal of money had piled up, and was locked in Harper’s safe, as it were. In order to free the money, Andy’s lawyer, John “Jap” Gude suggested that if Andy would write a new children’s book, a contract could be made to join it’s royalties with that of Charlotte. Andy told me personally, on my first visit, that he was forced to write “A Trumpet and The Swan,” expressly for the purpose of freeing up his backlog of royalties for Charlotte’s Web! But it was a complex legal maneuver, and Andy needed to gain quick cash. He was thus vulnerable to the upfront cash offered by the Seagrams likker combine.

Edgar Bronfman, and his subsidiary film production company, Sagittarius, headed by  Henry White, (absolutely no relation to Andy!), paid Andy enough of an advance to get him to agree to the following minimal creative rights:

Andy would have the right of approval of the model of Charlotte, and her voice. PERIOD.

That was it: no adaptation approval, no characterization approval, no screenplay approval, and no approval of the adapter/director.  In other words, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, was left with no approval rights of anything that really mattered. The model of Charlotte, and her voice were important, but only a gumdrop in the creative ocean.

As I look back through these old letters, I now plainly see that I had zero chance to realize the project. Andy White was sick. So was his wife Katharine, who had suffered a series of heart attacks. There was gloom in the room. And brilliant as he was, Andy had no real conception of the problems and limitations of adapting a book to the technical and marketing conditions of feature filmmaking. I was in the stupid position of having to lecture this great writer on the basics of film language, and with both arms tied behind my back: I was forbidden to show Andy anything I was writing on the script!  As if all that were not disaster-laden enough, the graphic designer I chose for the film actually died drawing the storyboard!  More of that, and the storyboard itself, will be revealed in Chapter 60.

Much of what Sagittarius was to pay Andy was conditional on the completion of the film. So he was ultimately their pawn. As you will read, he was strongly against turning Charlotte’s Web into a song and dance musical, but that is exactly what Hanna-Barberra did with it!

There was also the basic trepidation of Sagittarius to invest in a production behind the Iron Curtain. Mike Campus, who recruited me to direct the film, was in hot water with Sagittarius! I was sucking a dry teat, and I knew it. Yet, once chosen for this golden project, I plunged recklessly ahead. As with my earlier attempt at an impossible situation, at Terrytoons, I leapt at this offer to work on a dream project with an author I so much admired. The resulting experience was painful, but after all these years, I feel that my relationship with Andy White was well worth the foolhardy risk. I did reserve just enough reason to insist on a contract from Sagittarius that would pay me double if they decided NOT to use me or my storyboard in actual production. They easily agreed; for them, even my double fee was peanuts.

Bronfman had taken his biggest bite out of Andy White’s most precious possession, his creative integrity, as you will see from Andy’s letters, which I will show you.

Andy’s wife, Katherine, wrote me in 1977: “We have never ceased to regret that your version of “Charlotte’s Web ” never got made. The Hanna-Barberra version has never pleased either of us… a travesty… “

But how could such a creative travesty come about? Here’s how:

Michael Campus pitched a new and faithful Charlotte project to Andy White, and brought it to Sagittarius for financing. Mike was a budding live-action director, hoping he could get a movie to direct from Sagittarius, but in the meantime producing Charlotte. Mike chose me to write the script and direct, immediately making Henry White nervous. I was not a Hollywood name, and I lived and worked behind the “iron curtain.” But Sagittarius had to accept Mike’s choice, as Mike had the film rights from Andy. In return for the promise of a directoral assignment, he had to take the fatal step of signing over the movie rights to Sagittarius. No one shared these ominous portents with me.  I was pulsing with excitement.

My first step, in November 1970, was to fly with Mike to North Brooklin, Maine, to meet E.B.White. The flight was to Bangor, and from there over rugged country to Brooklin.. We passed a house with a deceased bear hanging from a tree in front of it. Life and death were part of the landscape. Was that dead bear an omen?

White’s house was just as you might imagine, a large, sturdy white clapboard home, far from the turgid milieu of the New Yorker magazine, for which he was still writing. He greeted Mike and me at the door, and introduced us to his infirm wife, Kay. We were made to feel at home, were fed good country food, and quickly fell into talk of spiders, pigs, rats, and barns – the stuff of Charlotte’s Web. Thus began my intensive relationship with Andy White. which lasted until his death. But this great writer and word-person knew nothing at all of the essentials of cinematic transformation of a book.

He had recently recorded his own voice reading Charlotte’s Web in its entirety. The recording ran for three hours and twenty minutes. What Andy White basically wanted, was for us to simply put his recording on the soundtrack and illustrate it. I had been given a production limit of a 90-minute film. My first task was to gently convince Andy that I would be true to the essence of his book, while having the necessity of adapting it to the scenes and shots of film continuity. Andy wanted exposition by narration of his words from the book. I knew I must tell the story with dialogue and action, so we were in gentle conflict, and great discretion was needed from me.

Andy loaded me with farmyard lore, and with his personally annotated copy of the book. I returned to Prague full of enthusiasm, despite the odds, and began my basic research. Henry White’s Sagittarius Productions secretary, Leila Khouri, was a great help in getting me the books I needed.

If a story set in an American farm was to be produced in Prague we had to learn all the details of spiders, pigs, and New England barn life. These details were important; even the shape of an American hand axe differs from a European one!

Mike Campus was a bright, perceptive and sympathetic young man. I was happy to be working with him. We got along wonderfully, and had closely matched views on the project. I suppose I especially liked him because he so enthusiastically approved everything I was writing on the screenplay! He was my official approver, and of course I needed to be able to bounce everything off him as I went along. I also wanted to be able to bring Andy White into the process, so that he could be sure of our respect for his book. But almost from the beginning, this became more and more difficult.

Soon after the fanfare of the project’s launch with Henry White and Edgar Bronfman, they began to ignore me. And no sooner had they assigned Mike Campus to work with me, than they whisked him away to direct a film in Denmark. This was Mike’s big chance.   He was torn between two attractive projects, but couldn’t refuse a chance to direct his own film. (It was “Zero Population Growth,” with Geraldine Chaplin and Oliver Reed – The poor title sounded like a documentary!)

The worst and most difficult new condition I was ordered to accept was that I was forbidden to show any of my script to the story’s author! My correspondence with Andy had to be general, without revealing anything directly from my developing script. The handwriting on the wall was neon red, but still I soldiered on.

Now follows the complete documentation of possibly my greatest creative loss. But my loss was nothing compared to what befell E.B. “Andy” White. Letters from him and his wife indicate the depressing effect the debacle had on his health. I know one thing for sure. No one ever saw the storyboard we created. No one rejected it. It was irrelevant to the powers that ignored it. You will soon be the first persons to see it!

Charlotte began spinning with all eight legs. Right off the bat, Andy White started sending me some wonderful material. I can never be sure that he would have accepted my screenplay of his book; he was obviously put off by what little he saw of my preliminary development. But I believe that if only I’d been allowed to work with him personally, on the basis of our positive personal relationship, that the small conflicts could have been worked out. Compromise could have been arrived at, and a far truer version of his work would have reached the screen. Here are the letters that tell why this didn’t happen. They are all authentic, complete, and are not modified. My short notes between the letters will provide background information. The letters are chronological, so you can get an idea of how the project developed.

Part II – The Documentation of a Done Deal

I was in full cry, shoveling my enthusiastic ideas to him:

(continued)
Also, I would use these seasonal sequence-opening, evocative passages to introduce various characters and plot points which might otherwise require explanations, and thus slow down the flow of the film. For example, in the opening sequence showing the coming of spring to the farm, we would incorporate shots showing the birth of baby pigs, and shots of a rat scurrying about gathering bits of strange junk, and of course, a spider meticulously constructing a web. Thus, when we come to Templeton’s role in the story, we will already know the essential facts of his character and unpleasant habits.

Under the titles of course, would be seen the slow, diligent weaving of an entire spider web. In developing this idea, which I am happy that you like, I would like to see the spider rest from time to time, moving off to the side, pausing as if to survey the work in progress. And once, when a strand of the web is drawn askew, thus breaking the otherwise perfect symmetry, the spider actually undoes the line, and re-spins it to conform to the overall pattern! In this action, we are suddenly aware of a consciousness, a personality.

Then, when the titles are at last over, and the web is complete, a pure thin voice, speaking a disciplined New England dialect, would be heard to say:

“It’s not bad, really. But I expect I will do better still before I am done.”

Without our yet knowing it, this line would tell us in advance the whole story of our film, and the determination of its heroine.

Then we would pull away from the glistening new spider web, and begin a visual/musical poem on the annual renewal of life, which is Spring.

In addition to the dramatic/structural premise I have chosen, I would add what I feel to be the overlaying parallel themes of the story; the expression of the interdependence of all individuals to one another, (friendship), and of all to the land, (Ecology). The story is in fact a paean to Life, and the film too must convey a feeling of joy of life, and an acceptance of its patterns. Further, the story impels tolerance for other ways of life,(and by inference, other cultures). After all, we are dealing with a PIG who sloppily slurps garbage, a RAT who scavenges anything he can get for himself, and a SPIDER who drinks blood.

Well, these are some excerpts from twelve pages of notes which I have typed up so far. Also, I have collected some very interesting samples from several artists here, and am waiting impatiently for Mike Campus’s arrival to either confirm or condemn my basic filmic approach. He should be here any day, according to his last phone call. Then, I hope I will really be off on the great adventure.

As I said before, I will be in need of any and all photographic material, as detailed as possible, dealing with New England farm life. In the meantime, Zdenka and I wish you and Kay the very happiest of New Years. Now, I must run to the snow before the corner Post Office closes for the year. . . (it’s Dec 31st by now!) Let’s hope that during the next year, more people will get a little sip from those front teats!

(Gene)

Answering this, Andy both agrees with and skillfully tempers my probings. I am learning the basics from him!

If by chance you’ve forgotten what a great writer E.B.White was, just read his next letter to me, and feel my inspiration…

Just when the good vibrations had me enthralled, who had to pee in the soup but none-other than good ol’ Bill Snyder. The following letter, full of bombast and falsehoods, was enough to turn off Henry White totally. Now he not only had his fear of producing behind the iron curtain, but possible trouble from a blowhard like Snyder. I got a copy of this letter from Mike Campus, who was confronted with it by Henry White. Mike refuted it, point by point, but who listens to facts when fear rules the heart?

Two obvious facts were that my contract with Bill Snyder had ended in 1967, and that Snyder owed so much money to Czechoslovak Filmexport that he was virtually run out of town, and could only continue to produce if he paid off his enormous debt, and paid cash in advance for any future production. When Henry White, wanting to check out the production conditions in Prague met with Snyder, Bill immediately saw gold, as he did in 1968 with Morton Schindel.  He quickly began to weave his own web. Henry White immediately blamed Campus for getting him into what appeared to be a troubled scene, and started to undermine our project. I was apparently still in, but the Production in Prague looked less and less likely. Mike had to convey to me two pieces of bad news. 1. I was forbidden to show any more of my script or discuss my treatment with E.B. White, and 2. Mike was leaving me and going to Copenhagen to direct a film. I dispatched a registered letter to Henry White, pointing out that I would henceforth be working in the dark, with no feedback from the author, and no counseling or approvals from my producer! I pointed out to him that the studio was turning away work from the following year in order to make room for Charlotte. This was the curt reply:

SAGITTARIUS PRODUCTIONS INC.

375 PARK AVE. – NEW YORK, N.Y. 10022 – 758-4530

HENRY S. WHITE                      cable SAGITTAR, N.Y.

president                                         May 3, 1971

Mr. Gene Deitch

Mostecka 273B

Prague 1, Czechoslovakia

Dear Gene:

This is in response to your “registered” letter of 26th April.

It is suggested that you continue working with your sketch artists on the storyboard with the laudable intention of completing these elements by the agreed upon date. We shall look forward to seeing it.

We think you and the studio are making a mistake in rejecting or delaying all other projects through the end of 1972 because of the expectation that “Charlotte’s Web” will be produced in Prague.

To date we have complied with all our contractual obligations and made all the payments which have come due. We cannot and will not be rushed into a final production commitment at this time. If this means that you and the studio wish to make other commitments, we can only urge you to do so.

We do not wish to commit ourselves any further to Czechoslovak Filmexport at this time. Our major objective is to keep all of our options open. It may well turn out that with this material in hand, we could develop a satisfactory arrangement on this side of the Iron Curtain. We hope all of this is clear.

Cordially,
(Henry White)

Crystal clear. And I loved that “cordially.” Not only must I not show any more of my adaptation development to Andy, but I must not even tell him I must not! Andy was confused, and he developed a fear that I was going to turn his book into a musical. He did not know that I was ordered by Sagittarius to create songs. But my songs were to be background, voice-over songs, and not sung by the characters. My hands were effectively tied.

Gene Deitch Mostecká 273/B Prague 1, Czechoslovakia

May 12,1971

Dear Andy,

Mike sort of panicked when I told him that I had sent you a few trial pages of script, and he asked me not to mail the answer I had written you.

In the meantime, Mike himself is having some pretty hard times on his other (live-action) feature film, and I feel rather uncomfortable about being out of touch with you. The fact is that your comments and criticisms were extremely helpful to me, and as a result of them, I started over again.

Now I have finished the entire screenplay, and am working on the visual storyboard version. I honestly believe that I have been true to the meaning and spirit of your book. The fact is that I love CHAPLOTTE’S WEB. You may or may not be able to picture the problem of adapting a book, however perfect in its own terms, to the complex medium of film.

Only one fact will help you to understand the basic starting problem: Your own sure and true reading of the book onto phonograph records takes 3 hours and twenty minutes, give or take a groove or two. Our film must hold to a running time of just 90 minutes. This, plus the inherent nature of the motion picture medium, require adaptations which are difficult to explain to an author. The aim however, in my view, is not to mimic the book, nor to create a substitute for the book, but to illuminate the book, supplement the book, and at best to lead people (who haven’t) to want to read the book, to hopefully get more out of reading. Or, having read the book, to help them appreciate the book all the more; to underline what is in the book, and not to add something unnecessarily which is not in the book. At least, those are my aims.

I hate to spoil your image of me, but the fact is that I am a word man too. I love words, and I know that part of this story of yours is to show the power and effectiveness of the written word. Your words are beautiful, and I have maintained as many of them as I possibly could.

I imagine that what you would really like is if somehow your whole book, word for word could be transferred to the screen, just as you transferred it to those record grooves. But Andy, I am sure you would be disappointed in such a film if you saw it. What I aim to do is to use a combination of your words, with images, movement, juxtapositions, music and sounds, to project the essence of the book, within our financial and technical means. No film can ever realize a 100% of our dreams in planning it, but what is important is our aim. If it is high enough, even if we fall somewhat short, we are still a good ways off the ground.

Let me assure you that I as intensely aware of my responsibility to all those readers who love and know your book line by line, I have tried, and will try to maintain all the love that is in it. There will be no disneyfying, no betrayal of character (Incidentally Avery, is definitely not scratched!)

Dear Andy, have faith, keep well. The last thing I would wish to do is to add to your physical or mental distress. Be assured that I will always remove my hat when entering the barn!  Love conquers all, (well, sometimes.)

Gene

Yes, it was crystal clear that my Charlotte project was doomed. Having pushed my storyboard delivery date one month forward to June 1st, Henry White seemed confident I wouldn’t make it, and that they wouldn’t have to pay the double-whammy penalty. So I worked night and day to have it ready. There was no such thing here in those days as FedEx, UPS, DHL, or any other reliable delivery service. Czechoslovak Filmexport relied on tightly controlled Air Cargo. Zdenka did everything possible to have it arranged. I had my storyboard recorded frame by frame on 35mm film, got it packed, along with my written script, and shot it off on May 28, along with a covering letter. It arrived on time. Then I received this telegram:

In spite of some of Andy’s comments, or those of Jap Gude, NO ONE, aside from Mike Campus, ever actually saw any of my storyboard or written script. The sealed package was returned to me unopened, and the materials are still in my possession. All of the criticisms are based on mere assumptions, used to justify the chicanery involved!

The final word, from Mike Campus…

The irony of lost creation but financial gain worked here. The crazy thing was that I actually got more money for not directing the movie than I would have gotten if I actually did it! I had a double-payment clause, if Sagittarius did not produce my storyboard. I delivered it on time. Sagittarius refused to accept the parcel. It was returned it to me, still sealed. They paid me off, sight unseen, preventing me from suing if any of my material showed up in the Hanna-Barberra production.

Well, I socked my payment in the bank, dried my eyes, and went back to my work with Weston Woods. I learned a lot. I knew I created something excellent. My greatest loss was not being able to share what I did with Andy. When I finally could, he was too ill for me to bother him with it.  He had the money.

The question remains whether the debacle of the Charlotte film nudged Andy to his grave. There are varying opinions. Kay wrote me that the film greatly depressed him.

Perhaps as an act of contrition, that same Edgar Bronfman, sans Sagittarius, produced a live-action movie of Charlotte, released in 2006. The CGI technology arrived, allowing for believable talking and acting animals. I liked it. It did catch the reality Andy wanted. I felt that maybe,  just maybe, Andy might have liked it too. Who can know? It was a credible job, and reflected the spirit of the book. It was a movie that was not technically do-able in 1971.

Now that I am 87 years old, I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m old enough to be giving out advice and pushing my opinions onto one and all, and I am not scavenging for work.For most of you who are reading this, your probable failures and occasional successes are still ahead of you. Wouldn’t you like to trade places with me? Applications accepted. What??? No takers!!!

•  •  •

In the following section, I will show you a sample of the storyboard, character models, and studies made by Mirko Hanak.  It was his last work. He died just after finishing the storyboard.   It’s just another sad irony in this sad story. Even if the production had gone ahead with us, Mirko would not have been able to realize the gorgeous artwork I knew he would have created for us…

But first, here is a drawing by E.B.White himself – how he personally envisioned an animated Charlotte.

NOW PLEASE GO TO CREDIT 60. MIRKO HANAK FOR THE INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL

YET TRAGIC END TO THIS STORY – THE COMPLETE 775 DRAWING STORYBOARD

AND STUNNING MODEL AND BACKGROUND  CONCEPT PAINTINGS BY

 HANAK, HIS LAST COMPLETED WORK AND MY REMAINING TREASURE FROM

THIS LOST PROJECT.

9 thoughts on “39. E.B.White

  1. Gene,
    What a story! I LOVED reading Charlotte’s Web as a child and was always fascinated by it.
    I live in Winterport Maine and found what appears to be a signed copy of Charlottes Web that “Andy” signed to a Jared in thanks for his hospitality. Maybe this is an inappropriate request via a blog but I was wondering if I sent you a photo of the note if you would be able to authenticate it as his hand writing? I was amazed to stumble upon this book and didn’t even realize it was signed initially. A few days after acquiring it I sat down to read it and noticed the note in the book. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks.

    • Of course I will look at it, but you will find several samples of Andy’s handwriting right in my ‘ROLL THE CREDITS” chapter.
      Look carefully before you take the trouble to send it to me! Best wishes, and thanks for your interesting comment!

  2. Gene,

    I have just spent the entire morning reading your account of what happened (and didn’t happen) between you and E.B.White and Charlotte. – what a story! –

    You may not remember me – I wrote to you after visiting Prague a number of years ago, and I was moved after reading your lovely book about you and Zdenka… I have a bakery in New Jersey (U.S.) and so was pretty tied-up over the last month, baking everything and anything for the holiday season… I’ve had it on “hold” to read your accounting of what happened to your version of Charlotte. Like I said, what a story! I was born in 1972, and so I grew up having both read the book, and seeing the Hanna Barbera production. I can’t say that I didn’t like it, as a child, but I did always find their animation lacking – something – even as a child! I loved Looney Tunes, and the inventiveness, the quips and tricks that were sometimes over my head. I always found Hanna Barbera cartoons sort-of insulting… both the animation and the stories seemed dumbed-down, or purposely cheap. So it was horrible reading that I could have (possibly) grown-up knowing a different version – YOUR version – of that beloved story of Charlotte.

    Thank you so much for including E.B.White’s letters. He’s an author I’ve always admired and enjoyed tremendously, and it is a special treat to see his writing in a non-published, off-the-cuff way, to know that he was exactly the person I always suspected he was. What an honor it must be to have had a relationship with him!

    Thanks so much for sharing with all of us,
    Megyn Craine

  3. What a story Gene – and one which resonates on many levels. I am sure there are many such tales untold in the annals of film production. Thanks for sharing this one…

  4. Good grief, more intrigue and double-dealing than in a dozen spy movies. And all that centered around a children’s book!
    E. B. White is one of my favorite authors. It’s so rare that an author gets a chance to really contribute to a film of his work; I can only shake my head at the loss. (I exclude writers such as Stephen King, who are worlds away from E. B. White) And the only thing you gained – aside from becoming sadder but wiser – is a story for your autobiography. And (not to forget the most important thing) friendship with a great author.
    Perhaps, Gene, someone will make a movie of your life one day. There’s certainly material enough. I hope that, should such a film happen, that they would be true to your story as you tried to be true to Charlotte’s Web.

    • Thank you, Steve. There is actually a 1-hour documentary movie with Zdenka and me, and it will be posted right here on this blog shortly after the holiday
      break. It was made by a group of young Czech filmmakers in 2006, conceived
      as a parallel to my printed book, “For The Love of Prague,” going beyond the book, including never before personal 16mm movie shots I made on my first trips to Prague in the fall of 1959 and spring of 1960. Please wait for it! Gene

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