One day in the 4th grade, while in my elementary school discovery club (which is really just a fancy word for day care), I found a worn out copy of Tuck Everlasting on their book shelf. At nine years old, I had already become a bit of a reader. But, Tuck Everlasting, written by Natalie Babbitt, was the book that me fall in love with reading.
For those not in the know, Tuck Everlasting, which takes place in the late 19th century (in the film the early 20th), follows Winifred (Winnie) Foster, a ten-year old girl who upon running away meets a family that is immortal. Her life is so rigid that she can’t help but fall in love with the slower way the Tucks live their lives. At its heart though, the book is about death and the fear we all have surrounding the idea.
In fact, Natalie Babbitt recently discussed what influenced her to write the novel, saying “One day she [her daughter] had trouble sleeping, woke up crying from a nap. And we looked into it together, as well as you can with a 4-year-old, and she was very scared with the idea of dying. And it seemed to me that that was the kind of thing you could be scared of for the rest of your life. And so I wanted to make sure that she would understand what it was more. And it seemed to me that I could write a story about how it’s something that everybody has to do and it’s not a bad thing” (Babbitt, NPR). To listen to her full interview, click here.
Since the book was just adapted into a Broadway musical, I thought this would be the perfect time to re-examine the film adaptation from 2002. The film meant a lot to me at the time. I was just about ten years old when the film was released. Looking bad on it, the film is not without flaws, but despite its imperfections, I still love it.
Here are just a few reasons Tuck Everlasting is worth a watch:
Truly, this is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Alexis Bledel was still at the beginning of her years playing her most famous role: Rory Gilmore on the WB dramedy, Gilmore Girls. She was twenty-one when she stepped into the role of Winnie Foster. The late Edward Herrmann who played the patriarch of the Gilmore family said of Alexis: “[She’s] like Audrey Hepburn. The camera absolutely adores [her]. [She] can’t say anything wrong, [she] can’t do anything wrong. It’s a gift” (Herrmann, AV Club Interview).
She was perfect for the role because she had an intrinsic childlike innocence. Obviously, Winnie was ten in the book, but for the purposes of the film, they made her fifteen and added a love story.
Jonathan Jackson, who’s now known as Avery Barkley on ABC’s Nashville was cast opposite Alexis as Jesse Tuck. He was about twenty and not very well-known. As Jesse, he’s charming and energetic. You can’t help but fall for him just as Winnie does.
The real weight of the cast is in its strong supporting cast. William Hurt and Sissy Spacek play Angus and Mae Tuck with strength and sensitivity. They both, of course, had already had massively successful film careers. Thus, they took a back seat in this film and let the story shine.
Ben Kingsley played the villain of the tale, The Man in the Yellow Suit. I remember some of my first impressions after my first viewing of the film and one of them was pure terror of Ben Kingsley’s character. There’s a scene where he’s talking to a Priest in a graveyard that still sends a chill down my spine.
Additionally, Amy Irving and Victor Garber are wonderful as Winnie’s parents. Irving especially affected me when I first saw the film. When her own mother is dying and she climbs into bed with her, I can’t help but tear up.
The material is what makes this film worthwhile. While the film is a bit Disney-fied in retrospect, the story is told in a restrained, yet sensitive way. At the age I first read the book and saw the movie, I had a lot of fear surrounding the idea of death. I remember having nightmares about it and while I’m still not comfortable with it (who is??), this story did comfort me and help me come to terms with the concept of death.
Obviously, the film, for commercial reasons, added a teenage love story. While I understand the filmmakers and studio’s thought process, that may be the major flaw of the film. The original story was not meant to be a teen romance. It was a small tale which posed the question: Does it pay to live forever if you’re not really living?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been exposed to many more films and obviously, learned a lot about the history of film. When re-examining this film, I couldn’t help but think of Producer Irving Thalberg. He famously became the head of Universal at the age of twenty and was nicknamed “the boy wonder.” Irving was born with a heart condition and was told he would not live past the age of thirty. Thus, there was an urgency in his life. He knew he would not live a long time and was determined to make the most of it.
This is a theme that always fascinates me: how people react in knowing that their deaths are imminent. Some films that come to mind are Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach and Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, two films which I’m sure to cover sometime in the future.
Even though this didn’t exist in the book really, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It’s a bit saccharine, yes, but it’s also charming. I like romance. Sue me.
Maybe it’s because music is so attached to our memories, but I can’t help but melt at Tuck Everlasting’s score composed by William Ross. It evokes a little Titanic magic, which makes sense, considering Ross was an arranger for the film.
It’s universal and thought-provoking.
So much of the time, children’s films condescend. They usually don’t dare to discuss real issues, although the recent Pixar film Inside Out did an excellent job in talking about depression.
Tuck Everlasting was not a bomb by any means, but it also wasn’t a big box office success. So, now, it seems the film has been relegated to almost obscurity. For all its flaws, it’s a film which attempts to explain death to children with sensitivity and charm. For me, it will always hold a nostalgia factor so I know I’m biased. However, even if this is not something you would usually watch, I urge you to give it a chance, if only to hear Natalie Babbitt’s beautiful words.
Vintage trailer below:
P.S. – Here’s a song from the Broadway show which just closed on Broadway. For the purposes of the show, they went to the story’s roots and let Winnie be a ten year-old girl. Young Sarah Charles Lewis is pretty talented, no?