The movie Stuart Little may be well-intentioned, but, in almost every aspect, it not only changes, but reverses E.B. White’s book, and, in doing so, it, resolutely, crushingly, simplifies the material.
The movie gets that Stuart is small, but that’s about it. In the book, he is mouse-like; in the movie he is a mouse. There is no ambiguity, and instead there is a series of easy jokes. In the book, Stuart acts like an adult and sometimes like a petulant teen. In the film, he is much younger, dressing like a child, wearing sneakers rather than having a cane and fedora. The movie goes for cuddly and cute.
The book is open-ended, frustratingly so for some; the movie seeks closure on every point. By the end, Stuart is even friends with Snowbell, the cat, riding her home. He has formed a positive relationship with his new brother. His identity – “I Am Stuart Little!” – is not only clear, but literally shouted from the rooftops. At the end of the book, Stuart is off on his quest for beauty, leaving his family; at the end of the movie, he has come home, finding his family.
Most characters change in the movie, usually becoming softer. White, however, was interested in how we live with one another when we’re not likeable. Templeton in Charlotte’s Web is amoral and will eat the goslings if he has a chance, but he’s a member of the farm. In The Trumpet of the Swan, the swan Louis works as the bugler at a boy’s camp. One of the campers, Applegate, doesn’t like birds. After Louis saves his life, the others expect the boy to change his view, but he doesn’t. He’s appreciative, but says that he still doesn’t like birds. Community means finding ways to live together even when we dislike and distrust one another.
In the book, Stuart works one day as a substitute teacher. He has the class come up with rules of behavior for the Chairman of the World to govern everyone by. They end up with two: Don’t be mean, and don't steal. Significantly, the first is not a cloying “Be nice.” Stuart (and White) don’t insist on an active engagement. You don’t have to play with people, like them, or even help them, but you can’t harm them. The two rules add up to “leave people alone.” When the class wants to come up with rules against rats, Stuart won’t let them. You may not like them, but you can’t single them out.
Whereas Charlotte’s Web focuses on death from the first line to its conclusion, the book Stuart Little is devoted to examining difference. Stuart is the Little’s second son, and he is not what they expected. It’s crucial that the difference occurs within the family. To rework Forrest Gump, it’s not life that’s like a box of chocolates, but children. One may be a runt (Wilbur), one may be mute (Louis in The Trumpet of the Swan), and one may seem like a different species all together (Stuart). Families are fundamentally varied and diverse, and the arrival of a child changes the views of the others. Having a mouse-like son, the Littles are suddenly aware of references to mice in literature and also the negative portrayals. They’ve become sensitized in a way they hadn’t been before. The recognition of difference changes their perspective.
In the movie, Stuart is adopted. Difference gets placed at a distance. The Littles “accept” Stuart, they grow to love him, but scene after scene emphasizes that he and they are not really the same. They are seen as big-hearted and generous because they “choose” him.
Interestingly, the movie hints at, but doesn’t pursue a more complicated dynamic. Encoded in the movie is race. When the Littles adopt, the person at the agency says, “Mr. and Mrs. Little, we try to discourage couples from adopting outside of their own... species. It rarely works out.” For a long time, the policy of agencies was to not allow, or at least discourage, trans-racial placement. In the movie, Stuart’s “real,” or supposedly biological, parents arrive (although actually they are con artists). They are mice, and they emphasize that Stuart will never be truly happy with the Littles because he will never really be understood. There will always be a void or absence inside of him. They take him “home,” and his room has the primary decoration of a baseball card. Significantly it’s a black player. Towards the film’s end, Stuart gives a speech how people don’t have to look like one another to be family. It's a well-intentioned sentiment, but the film makes the choices and issues far too easy.
From its bright colors to its soundtrack, the movie’s intentions are clear. It wants to be appealing. It wants to be fun. It wants to be loved. These are never White’s intentions. Not surprisingly then, White writes one Stuart Little book, but we now have Stuart Little, the Movie, and Stuart Little 2, and Stuart Little 3, and Stuart Little the animated series, and Stuart Little the video game, and . . .