© 2018 by Rob Favre

Unless

June 3, 2017

 

The problem with taking a kids' book and adapting it into a full-length motion picture is that there's not enough stuff in most kids's books to fill out a 100-or-so-minute running time. So you get a lot of musical numbers, side plots, and extra characters. Or, in the case of 2012's The Lorax, you get additions that so completely miss the point of the original book that they end up hollowing out the value of the story, leaving behind an empty shell.

 

I loved The Lorax when I was a kid. (The book, obviously. When I was a kid, things like movies hadn't been invented yet.) There weren't a whole lot of books that I had access to when I was seven years old that went as dark asThe Lorax does. There were images of dead, desolate landscapes, rivers choked with sludge, sad animals having to leave their homes and never come back. It was still a kids' book, of course, which meant the animals got to be sad and leave, instead of just dying and bloating in the sun, but it still affected me.

 

And I was really affected by the way it handles its "villain." The Once-ler is a mysterious figure who relates the tale of what happened to the land, how its technicolor rainbow vistas got scarred and smeared into dead places lacking life or joy. But he's not like the villain in most stories, who has an evil plan to take over the world, or wants destruction for its own sake. He never meant to harm anyone. He wasn't evil; he was just careless. The world got ruined all the same. And maybe that's what made that story stick with me more than others: the Once-ler could be any of us. Evil, spite, or hatred wasn't required to destroy the world. All it would take was for otherwise well-meaning people to be reckless, to not see the long term or the big picture, to think about tomorrow rather than the next decade or the next generation.

 

This clear message becomes much more muddy by the time it appears on the movie screen. For one, the Once-ler is shown as an almost entirely sympathetic figure, who cuts down Truffula trees more due to an inability to stand up to his one-dimensionally greedy family than out of any lack of foresight on his own part. But even more egregious is O'hare, the villain in the wrapper story of the town of Thneedville - an over-the-top bad guy whose cartoonishly evil plan is to take everyone's clean air away so that he can sell them bottled air, and who argues that trees are dirty and should be destroyed. There is no subtlety to this characterization; he is there simply to be hated and get his comeuppance at the end of the film. Unlike in the original story, he provides no opening for the audience to think about their own actions, and whether they might be doing something that's contributing to the problem. He's just a cartoon villain, easy to cheer against, because he's so transparently and stupidly wrong. You can leave the theater, safe in the knowledge that at least in real life, nobody is destroying the environment just for the sake of being mean.

 

And, until this week, you would have been right.

 

Our president's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement is such a boneheadedly stupid act that if a fictional president in a book or a movie were to take the same action, it would be scoffed at as unrealistic. The agreement has no legally binding enforcement mechanism, no penalties that can hurt the American economy. It's simply a framework for the nations of the world to agree to try to roll back emissions. The fact that an agreement was reached at all is remarkable. How many times in world history has the entire world literally gotten together and agreed on something? (Ignoring you for now, Nicaragua and Syria). Not very many. 

 

Withdrawing from the agreement isn't going to bring back coal jobs in West Virginia, or car jobs in Detroit, or even steel jobs in Pittsburgh. And I doubt the President really thinks that it will, or has even thought about it on more than a surface level. This was simply him reacting on gut and emotion to what he perceives as other countries pushing us around. And if he can push back while trashing one more of the Obama administration's accomplishments, well, so much the better. That seems to be as deep as his motivation gets.

 

The rest of the world, thankfully, seems to be determined to carry on with the hard work of reducing emissions and shifting toward clean energy, despite our President's temper tantrum. But it's sobering to watch someone in the real world who wields real power acting like a cartoon villain, attempting to hold the planet we all live on hostage just because his feelings got hurt.

 

And, unless we American voters do something about it in our elections, nothing is going to get better. It's not.

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