Friday, 16 September 2011

Scary Fairies and Borrowers

 Just before I went on holiday I made my second-ever solo cinema visit to see Studio Ghibli's adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, Arrietty. Watch the trailer here. It is a beautifully animated film, which takes its time telling the story and lacks the manipulative cuteness and knowingness of recent US animation such as Hop. The film tells the story of the book fairly closely, although it is updated; the book, published in 1952, opens with an old lady telling a little girl a story from her childhood, which we can assume was pre- World War 1. In Arrietty, the story is set in contemporary Japan. A boy, Sho (he is unnamed in the book) comes to live with his aunt. He sees a cat chasing something; he investigates and catches a glimpse of a tiny girl collecting leaves. This works well in the context of the film, as it demonstrates Arrietty's adventurous nature without having to tell us about it. The characters are essentially the same: the Borrowers, Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock, the great aunt, the cook and the boy, although in the book the great aunt is a very elderly lady who spends most of her time in bed, enjoying glasses of Fine Old Pale Madeira. It is down to her befuddled state that Pod is able to borrow from her.

The terrible tedium of Arrietty's life before she meets the Boy is shown rather comically, I felt, in her excitement at washing day when she can go and hang the washing out by the grating. Her mother Homily in the film is more comical and loveable than the fretful, nagging and fearful character she is in the book. Arrietty's shock at the discovery that, instead of the rare creatures she assumes, "human beans" are in fact numerous and Borrowers are rare is shown in a powerful and affecting moment of stillness.

A big difference (and this is inevitable) is the lack of the framing device of the old woman narrating the tale to the little girl, and an unreliable narrator telling us about that: we are told very firmly that the little girl is not the "me" sitting and listening to the story, and this emphasises the uncertainty at the end of the book, when Mrs May isn't certain that her brother hasn't been making up the story all along (we're told he is very imaginative), since the handwriting in Arrietty's Book of Memoranda is so similar to his.


Michelle Harrison's The Thirteen Treasures reminds me strongly of The Borrowers, although the relationship between fairies and Tanya is not the generally benignly symbiotic one between the Clock family and the Human Beans; these fairies are malevolent, jealous and threatening. Like the Boy in The Borrowers, Tanya is sent to live with an elderly relative (this time her distant and seemingly unloving grandmother) in a remote country house. Tanya has a secret: she can see fairies. And they can see her. They torment and threaten her, and she is blamed for the damage they do to her possessions and house. Her mother can't cope any longer, so she is taken to live with her grandmother in Elvesden House in Essex. However, there is also a secret connected to this house, involving the mysterious disappearance of a young girl many years before, and if Tanya and Fabian, the caretaker's son, don't solve the mystery, there is a danger that history may repeat itself.

I would recommend the film to 6 year olds+; it isn't scary, but it may not hold the attention of younger children. I would suggest reading The Borrowers to 7+. It isn't a long book by modern standards but the narrative is quite complex; advanced readers 8+ should love reading it themselves. The Thirteen Treasures is a fantastic book for confident readers of 9+.


  1. I tried to read The Borrowers to my boys, but the sideways nature of the introduction to the story put them off, and we never got to the good stuff...must try again!

    I'd heard of the movie--I'm glad to know I'd probably enjoy it! Thanks.

  2. Agree with everything you said about the film :-) Although J (3) sat through it, it was too long for her. I don't know The Thirteen Treasures, so off to the library catalogue I go :-)

  3. Thanks for commenting, both of you! I remember being read The Borrowers as a child, but I'm not sure who read it to me. I read it to my Y4 (8&9 year olds) inner-city, culturally diverse class, and they were entranced by it. For the rest of the year we speculated what the borrowers were doing with missing pen lids, pencil sharpeners etc! The Thirteen Treasures is fabulous, and I've got the next book to read as well!