Have You Watched a Good Book Lately – Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Welcome back to our blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?” The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.

The story originally appeared in a science fiction magazine

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” was written by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym used by Henry Kuttner and his wife, C.L. Moore) in 1943 and published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. It was loosely adapted for the screen in 2007 as “The Last Mimzy” by James V. Hart & Carol Skilken (screen story) and Bruce Joel Rubin and Toby Emmerich (screenplay), and directed and executive produced by Bob Shaye, better known for producing “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” and “Frequency” and for executive producing “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” directed by Peter Jackson. For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the story (adapted from Wikipedia) and the film (taken from imdb.com):

“Millions of years in the future, a post-human scientist attempts to build a time machine and tests it by sending two boxes with hastily gathered batches of educational toys into the past. When they fail to return, he gives up the project. However, in 1942, two youngsters come across one of the boxes and begin to explore its possibilities, developing unusual thought patterns incompatible with our concept of a three-dimensional universe. The more they play with the toys, the more distant they become, until they are able to unlock the mathematical secret hidden within the box and advance to the next level of existence.”

“Two siblings begin to develop special talents after they find a mysterious box of toys. Soon the kids, their parents, and even their teacher are drawn into a strange new world and find a task ahead of them that is far more important than any of them could imagine!”

mimsy
Millions of years in the future, a post-human scientist attempts to build a time machine

From the Source’s Mouth

Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? Well, it’s a good thing that the filmmakers said it was “loosely based” on the story, since, though mildly entertaining, it had almost none of the substance that made the original so unique and so powerful, and I came away with a rather “flat” feeling.

The story starts millions of years in the future on what may or may not be Earth. A scientist is trying to test his time machine. At the last minute, he realizes he needs solid objects in his box to will tell him where and when the box landed. Scrambling around his laboratory, he grabs some of his son’s educational toys and throws them in, and waits. And waits. Undaunted, he tries again, with the same results, and so he abandons his project.

Seven-year-old Scott Paradine is playing hooky from school one day in 1942, and that’s when he finds the Box by the creek. Its parts are fused, but he finally manages to open it. There are many objects inside. One is a square, transparent crystal block, far too small to hold the maze of apparatus within it. Then he realizes the crystal is a magnifying glass, and the things inside are miniature “people” building a house. He hopes the house will catch fire so he can watch them put it out, and the next moment flames erupt; they race to extinguish the blaze using a variety of odd objects. It doesn’t take him long to realize his thoughts control the people’s actions, and he gets scared. But he’s too curious about everything in the box to let it go that easily. He spends the entire afternoon examining everything then takes it all home with him.

The scientist sent educational toys to the past

Things start to get a little strange at dinner, when Scott pulls out a gadget that came from the Box. Unfolded, it looks like a foot-square tesseract, strung with beads. Two-year-old Emma wants to play with it, but Scott won’t let her. To their father, it looks like an abacus, but the wires seem to form odd angles incompatible with Euclidean logic. Maybe, he thinks, it’s a maze. He lets Scott continue to play with it. Scott feels a shock any time he chooses a wrong bead to move or slides one in the wrong direction, but then he crows, “I did it dad!” To his father, it looks like nothing has changed, but Scott insists he made the blue bead disappear. Now that he knows the correct way to work the puzzle, there are no more shocks – it expects him now to do it on his own. And it does seem less confusing to him moving forward.

Scott moves on to the crystal cube with the little people and gives the abacus over to Emma, who makes her first bead disappear almost as quickly as Scott did. Scott continues to watch the little people obey his thoughts. He soon realizes if he does something wrong, they’ll wait until he figures out what he should do, thus teaching him how to proceed. Neither parent realizes that their children are being conditioned by the toys, Emma more so than Scott because she is younger and her thought processes are therefore more pliable; she doesn’t have to “unlearn” ideas in order to learn new ones. Scott sometimes has to question Emma about how the toys work, and while sometimes he does it in English, he often resorts to sign language and what his parents call “gibberish.” When Emma can’t reply adequately, she pulls out a pencil and paper and scrawls on it, Scott poring over the symbols with dawning comprehension, their parents with the belief they’re just a toddler’s scribblings.

She pulls out a pencil and paper and scrawls on it

Several months later, after their parents become somewhat alarmed that they can’t find out where these unusual toys that consume their children’s every thought come from, they consult with Rex Holloway, a child psychologist, hoping he can shed some light on the matter. He’s intrigued, but, unlike the Paradines, he recognizes that these are educational-conditioning toys, the conditioning being more effective the younger and less “programmed into human logic” the child is. Emma and Scott communicate with each other so much since Emma is able to understand the logic more easily but Scott has more real intelligence and manipulatory skills; he can build the objects they both require from their lessons. Holloway recommends that the parents take away the toys and give them to him for study, which they do, and everything seems to return to normal.

Well, not quite normal. On a hike, Scott thinks the valley below them looks strange, but he can’t explain exactly why. Then he has a strange conversation with his father, “Why do people live here?” he asks.

“Glendale?”

“No – here. This place. It isn’t all there is, I bet.”

“Do you mean the other planets?”

Scott hesitates and shakes his head. “This is only – part – of the big place.”

It’s as if he senses something exists on the edge of his perception but can’t quite make sense of it just yet. Holloway is right: “Scott’s thought-patterns are building up to a sum that doesn’t equal this world.”

Scott continues to hold unintelligible conversations with his sister, studying her presumably meaningless scrawls as if consulting her about difficult problems, those beyond his grasp. And when he gets his answer, he builds gadgets out of rocks, candle ends, bits of machinery, and other assorted knick-knacks, bringing the finished products back to Emma for her feedback and approval. Mr. Paradine tries hard to understand, but familiar, human-based logic fails him in deciphering the designs’ code.

In the late 1800s, a small English girl named Alice sits with her “Uncle Charles” near a stream. She’s been playing with a curious toy, but now she’s murmuring a little wordless song that intrigues the older man. He takes out a notebook and asks her to sing it again. “Does it mean anything?” he asks her. “Oh, yes. Like the stories I tell you. You’ll put them in a book some day?”  “Yes,” he responds, “but I must change them quite a lot or no one would understand. But I don’t think I’ll change your little song.” “You mustn’t,” she tells him earnestly. “If you did, it wouldn’t mean anything.” “Just what does it mean?” he inquires. “It’s the way out, I think. I’m not sure yet. My magic toys told me.” She had found those toys one day along the Thames in a Box, and they were wonderful. She knew the song meant a great deal – it was the way. Soon, she would do what it said, she thought; but she was already too old, and she never found the answer.

Late one afternoon Mr. Paradine hears Scott yell to Emma, “This is it! Come on – This way!” He runs upstairs just in time to see the children vanishing, hand in hand, in a direction he can’t understand. On the floor, Scotty had made another nonsensical pattern out of his usual junk, but there was also a piece of paper, a page torn out from “Through the Looking Glass.”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimbel in the wabe.

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

He recognizes “wabe” – the patch of grass around a sundial. This must be related to time. The rest? It was the perfect mathematical formula, and Emma had translated Lewis Carroll’s words into symbols both she and Scott could understand. They had fulfilled the conditions of the time-space equation, and were now heading … he had no idea because he was too old to understand.

He recognizes “wabe” – the patch of grass around a sundial.

And that brings us to the movie. It’s a good thing the movie was billed as “loosely adapted from,” because otherwise you’d never know you were seeing the same story on the screen that was on the page. We start with a teacher “showing” her students a story telepathically, the story of how their world was corrupt and polluted and dying and how a scientist created the last Mimzy (yes, spelling changed) to go back in time and save them. The story follows ten-year-old Noah Wilder, his five-year-old sister Emma, and Noah’s science teacher Larry. After daydreaming through his teacher’s lecture on DNA, Noah and his family head to the beach for Easter break. The kids find the box in the water, and Noah discovers a crystal gadget inside when he gets the box open. Later, Emma opens another compartment and finds a stuffed bunny which makes noises that Emma – but no one else – can understand. It tells her how to make rings spin in the air and even how to levitate, feats she masters immediately (see kids, no learning involved!). And when the kids enter an amorphous “shell,” a distortion field the rabbit projects, they can hear and manipulate every sound around them, especially those created by nature.

Noah’s interaction with the crystal cube comes in the form of triangles of light he can see projected into the space around him. Once they align, he can “teleport” an object from one point to another. This apparently gives him great confidence, because despite being an average science student with no ambitions for the school science fair, within a week he whips up a “structured bridge,” which he says was inspired by realizing that alternating sound wave frequencies can alter the way spiders spin their webs. It’s at this point his mother starts to get concerned that the kids are suddenly “too smart;” she wants to get them help, but her husband disagrees.

Will you be putting in a VHS tape from the past of reading the story?

After that, things start to go off the rails. The babysitter reads Emma “Jabberwocky” from “Through the Looking Glass,” and that starts a discussion (stay with me here) about whether extraterrestrials exist and whether they have ever come to Earth. Emma believes they do and they have, which prompts her to show the sitter a “magic” trick – the levitating, spinning rings. The sitter hysterically races out of the house, never to be seen again. Then another of the toys “absorbs” the crystal cube, and this somehow leads to a blackout of all of Seattle. Noah gets scared and wants to get rid of the toys since they’re dangerous, but Emma tells him Mimzy says it will be all right, so he doesn’t. Next, Larry the science teacher shows up with a notebook full of Tibetan mandalas Noah has drawn correctly in every detail, even though he’s never seen one before. He’s particularly taken with the one that represents the universe, as it’s a map to both the past and the future. Mom’s freaking out by now and sends him away, only to have Noah come to breakfast the next day without his glasses, claiming he doesn’t need them anymore. And when Dad asks Emma to pass the sugar, she levitates it all the way from the container into his cereal bowl.

This is when the parents take the kids to a psychologist who explains all about neural plasticity and how, despite their advanced ages, the kids’ brains are showing remarkable continuing growth. And that’s the end of that subplot – was it really needed in the first place?

Back home, Emma is looking at “Through the Looking Glass” again, and she discovers a picture of Alice Liddel, the inspiration for Lewis’ Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” And wouldn’t you know, Alice is holding a Mimzy, too. This prompts Emma to partially enter Mimzy’s more solid dimensional field so she can discover the secret behind all of this. All she sees is a future scientist racing to send two Mimzys back into the past – hers and Alice’s. People in the future can’t travel through time, but the kids can still help them by sending Emma’s rapidly decaying Mimzy back with a “non-polluted” DNA sample (remember that science lesson?), so the future people can correct all their mistakes. Emma cries when she has to send Mimzy back through the dimensional field, and a tear lands on the rabbit, providing the sample. And thus, according to the teacher, Emma is really the mother of all future humanity.

She discovers a picture of Alice Liddel, the inspiration for Lewis’ Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

Non-Standard Deviations

Should I mention the FBI task force that storms the Wilder’s house, having finally traced the power outage there? Nah, it was there only as an excuse to give the kids a chance for some action as they figured out how to escape from custody and win the feds over.

The Final Cut

So, how did “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” as a movie fare as a short story adaptation overall? It seemed to me that all the heart and guts were pulled out of the original and thrown away to make a “family-friendly film.” But there was nothing family-unfriendly about the original. It was an intriguing idea of the junction between mathematics and psychology, with the added attraction of secret codes and a beautiful “alienness” in its execution, and it deserved much better. A D- for not understanding what made the story work and a lack of imagination in bringing it to the big screen.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.

– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN

DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.

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