The Brave Little Toaster: Novella vs FilmApr 27, 2009
My subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction recently expired. Sad but true, however subscribing to the "big three" literary science fiction magazines left me virtually no time to attack the inexorably filling shelf of novels I have yet to read. In the past two years, I have read thousands of pages of great short literature, but my novel count was likely less than ten. Something had to be done.
So I let all three subscriptions lapse. Oddly though, F&SF was the only one of the three who actually sent me a "your subscription is expiring" notice (several of them, actually); the other two just stopped sending me issues. How do you like that?
I'm bringing focus to F&SF not because of the notices, but rather because they are currently in their 60th anniversary year, and each issue contains a reprint of a classic from sometime in the magazine's lengthy and occluded past. In one of the last issues I received, the story reprinted was Thomas M. Disch's The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances.
Mr. Disch published the story in F&SF in 1980, and the film rights were purchased by John Lasseter in 1982. After much ballyhoo—which included Mr. Lasseter getting fired just minutes after pitching the film to his superiors—the story was adapted into an animated movie in 1987, but wasn't widely released on cable and VHS until 1989. I'd known about the original novella for quite a few years now, but never had the chance to read it, and I'll admit I'd seen the film more than once in the early 90's. So this was the first time I'd ever sat down to read the story upon which one of my favourite childhood films was based. I was surprised, but not disappointed, and ended up reading it twice in one sitting.
The first thing I noticed about the novella was that it was generally much lighter in tone than the film. Yes Disch coldly dismisses the corpse of the air conditioner, and mentions the toaster's nightmare about falling into a bathtub of water, but several dark elements which are key devices in the film are absent in the novella. For instance, in both novella and film, the courageous appliances end up at a junk yard; however in the novella the villain encountered within is merely a callous hillbilly who tosses all our heroes, save the radio, onto a pile of junk—while in the film, we are brought face-to-maw with a vaguely anthropomorphised crusher capable of squeezing entire lamenting automobiles into tiny cubes, the size of which make one question whether or not any laws of subatomic particle physics are being violated. To top it off, the appliances' master himself ends up coming a clenched fist away from being incrementally crushed by the relentless machine, and earning the film a harsher MPAA rating no doubt.
Generally speaking, the obstacles encountered by the five appliances in the novella are smaller, more benign but at the same time more realistic. The novella has them entering the woods quite soon after they start their journey, but the film takes them through a thicket of dead undergrowth which chokes the poor vacuum and fills the electric blanket with thorns and stickers. In the novella, the body of water our adventurers encounter is a wide but slow flowing river, while in the film the river has become a waterfall bounded by sheer cliffs on either side. The solution to crossing the river in the novella is a conveniently discovered boat, but crossing the waterfall in the film involves stringing everyone together by their power cords and swinging precariously across to the other side. Numerous other examples exist of this heightened calamity in the film when compared to the source material. Undoubtedly to keep an otherwise cosy audience riveted.
In the novella, the appliances go straight from the boat on the river to the junk yard. The poor appliances in the film take a side trip to Elmo St. Peters Parts shop where they meet a cohort of psych-ward denizens, merrily resigned to the fact they might be dismantled at any moment. Here we witness the motorized heart of a petrified blender surgically harvested and sold for $5.95, after which the remaining misfit appliances sing a song. Okay, granted it's a pretty catchy tune, but still... The closest the novella comes to touching upon death of any sort is the off-stage expiration of the air conditioner, and describing the moans and groans of the broken and fatalistic appliances in the junk yard.
The second difference between the two stories is, of course, the Disney-fied "feel-good" elements which were added to keep the film from becoming a depressing mush with an unsatisfying ending. At the end of the film, the appliances are repaired and reunited with their master, now an adult, who (we learn from the less-than-stellar sequels) "never throws away anything"; thus leading to an outcome for which the epic quest can be declared an official success. Or as the toaster confirms: "We did good."
In Disch's novella, however, the appliances arrive at the master's apartment only to find that the reason he hasn't been visiting the cottage is because he has fallen in love with a sufferer of hay-fever, and it would never do to expose her to all that countrified air. Like the film, the appliances discover that they have all been replaced by modern models, except for the electric blanket who supposedly has been replaced by central heating and a warm body. Unlike the film, the novella's modern appliances are kind, even embarrassed that they've unknowingly been a contributing party to the obsolesence of perfectly working, albeit dated, appliances. With their help, our heroes place themselves up for trade on a radio show and the story ends with them happily serving a new master until the end of their days. Here we don't even meet the master of whom the appliances are so enamoured, an ending the screenwriters knew likely wouldn't fly with an audience requiring their hour-and-twenty-minute closure1.
Also contributing to the feel-good nature of the film is the not-quite-out-of-place-but-almost meadow segment, where the withering death of a love-sick flower spurned is contrasted with a burlesque comedy of beavers, turtles and squirrels, culminating in a grand 1930s style musical water ballet of frogs and an operatic fish. I'm not entirely sure what the screenwriters were thinking here besides not wanting the poor rejected flower to overshadow what was supposed to be a colourful and relaxing stop at a place of beauty. Supposedly, the sombre event marks a turn in the toaster's character and he decides to start being nicer to the blanket. However, the relevance of the wildlife water show to the plot is pretty much nil.
The last change, and I would say the main reason I consider the film and novella two distinct stories, is the theme of self-sacrifice which was added to the film. All of the events featuring a dangerous, dramatic and heroic action by one individual appliance show up only in the film and not the novella. From the lamp's tenure as a lightning rod and the vacuum's leap of faith off the waterfall's cliff, to the viscerally disturbing sabotage of the crusher's gears by the toaster; none of these happened in Disch's version. Arguably, the addition of these events change the entire message of the story, and indeed, became a theme which continued into the chronological sequel, The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (1999)2.
This isn't to say that the appliances of the Disch novella weren't brave, only that the film added events which took this bravery to a dark and unrelenting extreme. The novella's appliances learned that their affinity for a particular master was merely a secondary concern to being needed at all. In contrast, the appliances of the film learned that by looking out for each other, even at the expense of their own safety, any goal can be accomplished. Two very noble messages, but quite different at a fundamental level. And the nobility of each is why I find myself liking both versions in their own separate ways. It warms my heart when the toaster begins roasting nuts for the squirrels—in thanks for rescuing the electric blanket—and is almost overwhelmed with joy at feeling needed again, even though by someone other than their human master. It also sends an electric shiver up my spine to see the lamp, inspired by a recent motivational talk with the toaster, overcome his insensitive nature and use himself to channel a lightning strike into the dead battery which has left them stranded3.
It seems that in most cases when a group of cockeyed screenwriters get their claws on a great literary work and make this many changes, the resulting product simply won't be able to measure up. Surprisingly this isn't the case with The Brave Little Toaster. Both stories are filled with adventure and sentimentalism, but explain their purpose in different ways. The novella leaves a warm feeling of rightness in your mind once you reach the last page, while the film washes over you, making you feel as if something truly epic has happened when the credits begin rolling. Which one you prefer is entirely up to you.
I don't know what Thomas Disch thought of the celluloid creation bearing the name of his short story, and since he took his own life last year, only his closest friends may know for sure. I, for one, like to think that he ended up appreciating it for what it was: a sweeping children's film that doesn't make light of serious issues like abandonment, self-worth, and the price of heroism; a very uncommon quality these days. I sincerely hope you enjoy both the film and novella as much as I did.