Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'The Lorax' Is Pretty Grim

I need to be clear here - I'm not talking about the version of The Lorax that came out a few years ago, the one with the computer animation, massive amounts of tie-in advertising, and Taylor Swift. No. We're not talking about that. Instead, I want to talk about the original version of The Lorax, both the book and the TV adaptation. Coming as they did so close together - the book was published in 1971 and the TV special aired in 1972 - I think it's safe to consider them both reflections of the same cohesive whole.

So. The Lorax. It's the sort of book and special that you tend to have warm fuzzy vague feelings about for years after seeing it, even if you'd be hard pressed to actually explain why. The story, such as it is, is almost short enough that I could copy and paste it into this space in lieu of an article, but here's a quick breakdown:

Written by Dr. Seuss aka Ted Geisel, The Lorax is a short story about the perils of consumerism, corporate greed, and capitalism as a whole. It's the story of how a once verdant and beautiful land was laid to waste by the Once-ler, a greedy creature who comes in and starts cutting down Truffala trees in order to make "thneeds", a thing that "everyone needs".

The story is told by the Once-ler himself, narrated from some point in the future when the beautiful valley no longer looks so beautiful and the Once-ler lives in a weird old shack at the edge of town. He's narrating the story to a nice little boy who has wandered by and wants to know what a Lorax is. Well, as the Once-ler explains, the Lorax appeared after he cut down his first Truffala tree and didn't disappear until the last tree was gone. Essentially, the Lorax is the voice of nature. He "speaks for the trees", and as the Once-ler continues his story it's not hard to see why the trees need representation.

After the Once-ler realizes that Truffala trees can be easily made into thneeds, he chops down tons of them and gets to work. The thneeds sell quickly and the Once-ler becomes rich. He brings his whole family out to work with him and they cut down more and more Truffala trees to turn them into thneeds. The thneeds are a huge hit. Everyone needs a thneed and the Once-ler is famous and rich.

But the cost to his environment is stark - with the Truffala trees going fast, the adorable animals who used to eat Truffala fruit are starving. The beautiful birds are getting poisoned by smog. The fish in the pond are gummed up with glop from the thneed factory and garbage from the town. Still the Once-ler keeps ignoring the Lorax and keeps cutting down the Truffala trees. It makes him rich and happy, and what does the Once-ler want him to do? Put all these nice people out of work and deprive everyone of thneeds? No way!

And then the last Truffala tree is cut down and suddenly there can be no more thneeds. The Truffalas are gone and so too is the Once-ler's business. It all dries up, everyone leaves but him, and it's just the Once-ler and the Lorax left. Until the Lorax grabs himself by the seat of his pants and lifts himself into the sky, leaving only a small patch of grass and the word "UNLESS" behind.

The little boy turns around to see that the patch of grass and the "UNLESS" are still there, and the Once-ler explains. Unless is a very important little word. "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot," says the Once-ler to the boy, "Nothing is going to get better. It's not." And with that he gives the little boy the very last Truffala tree seed and exhorts him to plant it and grow a Truffala forest, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the Lorax and all his friends might come back someday. Awww.

Oh wait. Hang on. That's actually super depressing.

Yes, for all that this is the story which reportedly Dr. Seuss loved the most, The Lorax is grim even by 1970s children story standards. It depicts a world in which there is nothing preventing the wiping out of an entire ecosystem, a world with no governmental controls, a world where the only thing standing between the world and total ecological devastation is a sneezy little orange thing that annoys you into doing the right thing. It's horrifying if you think about it. It is also, tragically, kind of true.

Just looking at the news recently hits home the fact that the world from The Lorax isn't nearly far enough removed from our own. We already live in a country and a world the prizes corporate interests over individual citizens, let alone over nature. The sanctity of human life only seems to matter during elections, and even then it's only the sanctity of lives that we feel comfortable sanctifying.

I'm a big proponent of hope, and there's a part of me that wants to recoil away from The Lorax because of how incredibly hopeless and defeatist it feels. I mean, the story takes place after the terrible thing has already happened. You go through the narrative with a weighing sense of doom*, because you know for a fact that this is a story without a happy ending. I don't love that. I'm an optimist, or I try to be, and I want to believe that we can make it right. That there is a happy ending possible.

The challenge of loving The Lorax, then, is accepting that the bad thing has already happened and understanding the story's personal call to do something about it. I mean, if the bad has already come, all we can do is try to pick up the pieces and not make it worse, right?

On the flip side of things, what I love about The Lorax is how clear it makes the entire process. This story might be technically a screed about the dangers of corporate values when it comes to the environment, but it also works as a really solid indictment of consumerism as a whole. 

One of the main points of the story is how the Once-ler uses the Truffala trees to create a product, a thneed, and then convince everyone that they absolutely need one. I mean, clearly they don't. They have survived perfectly well all this time without thneeds. But upon discovering that thneed can be made, everyone needs a thneed.

I like this. I think it's a solid commentary on the way that we as consumers are so quick to need things we don't actually, well, need. But I think it's a better commentary on corporations. As much as I fully believe in personal accountability and in living a life that measures up to your values about fair trade and sustainability and all that, ultimately individuals have nowhere near the influence that corporations and governments have. Saying otherwise puts the blame where it doesn't belong.

I appreciate the story in The Lorax because it makes it clear that the real problem is this entire thneed industry. The problem isn't any single particular one of the people buying thneeds or even really the ones producing them. The problem is the existence of an industry that can only work by exploiting the environment.

Okay. I didn't mean to get all political on you. Let's back up and talk about how The Lorax works as a children's story.

Narratively speaking, I actually don't think that The Lorax is one of Seuss' better works. I mean, there are definitely more compelling stories in his canon. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, and even The Cat in the Hat are all more narratively interesting than this. But I do find that it has staying power. The Lorax sticks in your head as a character and his words are memorable for all that they're ignored in the story itself. "I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees," is enough of a cultural touchstone that it needs no explanation when said out of context in a conversation. That's a pretty big deal.

So while The Lorax isn't Seuss' best work in terms of plot and characters, it still really grabs our attention, particularly as kids. I think a big part of this is in how the story takes big, complex concepts and boils them down using terms kids can understand, without ever condescending to the children or making the problems less complex

That's the part that really matters. The issues in The Lorax are still difficult to figure out and there's something valuable in the lack of a clear moral answer. Clearly the Once-ler's business is exploitative, but when he challenges the Lorax and asks where his employees should all find work, the Lorax admits he doesn't know. These are hard questions and the story doesn't pretend otherwise.

I think the ultimate value in this book (and the TV special) is in how it breaks down real issues in ways that kids can understand and take ownership of. The major point of the story is in how one person can be responsible for great destruction, but one person can be responsible for rebuilding too. So while the bulk of the story is pretty dang grim, the ending is uplifting. The ending is about hope.

Before we go, a quick aside on the 2012 remake: I haven't seen it, so I really shouldn't pass judgment, but I don't think I ever will both watching this film. A big part of that is the way it was marketed. See, if you're making an adaptation of a notoriously anti-corporate, anti-capitalist storybook/cartoon, maybe you shouldn't go all out on the corporate tie-ins? I think I lost it somewhere around when I saw an ad for an SUV that was a Lorax tie-in. Or the Dennys ad. They broke me. 

There is also something deeply unsettling in seeing a little story like this, which, again, is short enough to fit easily in a blog post, puffed up into a two hour movie. Especially a two hour computer animated movie where they pulled out all the stops. It just feels wrong.

All right. That's enough hipstering and whining about how things were better back in the good old days. The upshot of all of this? I think The Lorax, the original one, is a story that might bum us out but really really needs to be told. There are few comparable works that get across the same ideas with the same amount of "stickiness" or ability for us to remember them and process them as children.

Kids love The Lorax because of all the silly names and pretty pictures and the rhyme scheme, but the effects it can have on their perception of the world are a lot bigger than just liking the idea of Truffala trees. There's a lot of value in children's stories that challenge the status quo and urge us to change the world. So on that merit, I highly recommend The Lorax. It's dark and depressing and more than a little disheartening, but that's no reason not to show it to your kids. Frankly, I think that's exactly why we need to.

*Sort of like the sense of doom we all currently have about the third How to Train Your Dragon movie, which may or may not be about how dragons went extinct.


  1. I haven't seen the 2012 movie either, but the reviews aren't promising. It sounds like the movie's creators either didn't really "get" The Lorax, or didn't care. They give the Once-Ler a face, even though the whole point of his character was that he could be anyone - there's no Diabolical Villain you can't point to and say, "See! He's the monster! Not us! We're not culpable!"

    It almost reminds of what the author Ta-Nehisi Coates said about America, about how discussions about white supremacy are hindered by the fact the US considers itself a Good Nation, with bad things just being aberrations rather than systemic problems.

    1. Yes! I love that in the original all we ever get are hands and a voice - it really helps drive the point of the story home. I feel like there's something really weird in how hard it is to make a good full length Dr. Seuss movie, but then again, it's not weird because they're very short books with simple premises.

      I'm actually reading Between the World and Me right now and yes, that's a very good point. If we are a Good nation then we cannot do Bad things systemically, leading to a weakening of the strong points made in the original Lorax. Well put.


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